Sunday, April 21, 2013

Cambridge-bred

In February 2010, I was invited to be a guest artist at my beloved alma mater, Cambridge Rindge & Latin School. It was Black History Month. The Diversity Programs Coordinator scheduled me to perform two 45-minute sets for Periods 2 and 4. Hundreds of students poured into a newly renovated library auditorium to hear my poems and stories about “the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality and culture.” In many ways, CRLS embodied that intersection. I remember looking out at the student body and remarking, “It’s good to see you again. I graduated in 1998 but you look exactly the same!” The teenagers giggled, knowingly. Rindge remains one of the most socioeconomically diverse high schools in the United States. In 2010, the boy called Suspect 2 was a junior. Did he catch my show? Did he applaud my words about peaceful coexistence and compassion? 

Like him and many Rindge alum, I am an immigrant. I moved from Haiti to the U.S. in 1983. My family moved from Dorchester to Cambridge in 1988. I grew up broke, in a strict household that was alternately affectionate and hostile. As a young person, I knew my greatest privilege was being a resident of what we proudly nicknamed "The People's Republic of Cantabridgia." For me, school was a safe haven. Every day in the hallways, I greeted Joanne from the Dominican Republic, Malik from West Philly, Chara from Liberia, Semhar from Eritrea, Desiree from Trinidad, Mario from Greece, Chris from Cape Verde, Kubhear from Malaysia—and I could go on. Aminah was Indian but adopted by white parents. Our school was full of multiracial, hyphenated, new and layered Americans.

We were each other’s cultural ambassadors. We were Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, polytheistic and agnostic. We were hip-hop, folk, jazz, punk, grunge and pop. We built deep friendships and made first love across ethnic lines. 

We offended each other, too. Told each other off. Debated with a mix of newly acquired SAT vocabulary and fad slang. We asked corny-ass, politically incorrect questions. We humored each other. We scoffed at the word tolerance, aiming, instead, for acceptancecelebration, even. We learned how to curse in each other's first languages. And, after school, “underneath the overpass,” we flirted with kids our grandparents might not have approved of—kids who looked, dressed and ate nothing like us. 

Our sweaty prom photos are so frickin' hip, y’all.

Our crowded class portraits reflect the America Obama's always talking about.

In Cambridge, borders seemed simply technical. King’s dream seemed attainable. Rindge wasn’t perfect but it was where I learned the word feminism, the phrase social justice, the initialism LGBT. It's where my teachers, peers and community leaders came out to me in school-wide assemblies. It’s where the school motto is "opportunity, diversity, respect." 

You saw all those flags waving in the explosion footage at the Boston Marathon finish line? I saw dozens of flags every single day at school. They were huge above our heads, on permanent display in our gymnasium, a constant reminder that the "Falcons" represented 80 different nations. I think of people from all over the world when I think of my hometown.

The boy called Suspect 2 lived five blocks from my old address. Much is being made about this alleged bomber’s birthplace and religion but I can’t shake it: he was a kid from Cambridge. He looks like so many kids from Cambridge. The criminal with the gun, the explosives, the cryptic tweets—the fugitive bleeding in the boat—he shows up in hip prom photos, too. 

I met a lot of students after my 2010 performances at Rindge. Did I smile at Johar? Did he shake my hand? When and how did he become the Dzhokhar we’re reading about in the news? What did growing up in Cambridge, MA mean to him?

16 comments:

  1. Wow, this is a wonderful piece of writing and feeling. Thanks.

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  2. This captures so much of what I feel. How did Cambridge catch these men and yet miss them by a mile?

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    1. I keep rereading your question above...My mind is crying.

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  3. Anonymous9:31 AM

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. Mad love from an '06 grad.

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    1. You are very welcome. One love, dear fellow alum.

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  4. Thank you so much.

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  5. Thank you for sharing this. As a Cambridge mom of four boys ages 13 to 28 my heart has been aching and I found this to be healing.

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    1. Thank you, Momma-Sue. I’m so glad this writing can help with healing.

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  6. Anonymous7:34 PM

    Lenelle, I so appreciate your taking the time to write this piece. It is difficult to comprehend, to make sense, to emotionally understand. One of my colleagues was talking yesterday about how liberalism is the true enemy of fanaticism. Progressive Cambridge that values inclusion, multi-culturalism and acceptance is the essence of what is threatening to purist political movements. It is all so painful. Let's have dinner when you are next in Cambridge and keep talking, digesting. Love, Bev

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    1. Yes. "To emotionally understand." That's it exactly. Sending lots of love, Bev.

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  7. Thanks for raising more questions than you can answer. And not pretending that you have answers. I'm not sure it would have made any difference where he went to school. The school has nothing to blame itself for, nothing to congratulate itself for. The true enemy of fanaticism is other fanatics. We're just ineffectual dupes. I wouldn't have it any other way.

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  8. Light to you, Denko. On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Your comment made me think of this stunning 50 year old quote:

    "So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?"

    May our actions reveal the answer. May the answer be something we can live with. Emphasis on "live."

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  9. Hi Denko,

    It is a fine piece of writing. But I think there are two essays here and the second one begins with the final sentence, which is a question. You write so accurately, so passionately about the funky brilliant interracial, interethnic mix of CRLS, where I went to high school from '78 to '81 but don't we all want to know what happened to Dzokhar? Yes, he's the criminal, but wasn't he indeed part of the great tapestry of the school-- so why did he fray off and bloody the Boston marathon? That's all. I think you've got an unfinished essay and the first part is excellent. Now the case is in the justice system's hands...had he blown himself up in terror and not surrendered, there wouldn't be another chapter, and that young man would not be facing his terrible actions, or any chance of redemption in this world.

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  10. Lenelle,
    So thanks for your post. I wrote a similar one on my 'sewing' blog in late April....sewingmylifetogether.wordpress.com. Check it out.

    Suspect number 2 did not learn terrorism at CRLS. There he learned acceptance, sports, social justice, friendships that spanned the Globe....he learned his hate at home.

    I, too, and a CRLS grad...Actually, I am a CHLS grad ('69), my husband is a Rindge grad ('66), and my two daughters went there (2003 and 2009). In fact, my dad graduated in 1933 and my mother-in-law in 1939.

    So when this happened, I was shocked, hurt, and felt betrayed. How could this have happened? In fact, in an unintended irony, one of the injured who lost a limb is the son of a beloved,retired guidance counselor, Brian Downes. His son Patrick and his son's wife both lost limbs.

    It is sad, horrific, and impossible to understand emotionally and cognitively.

    They betrayed our beloved city and our beloved people. I am a second generation, proud Cantabrigian!

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