Heartbreak

by

On Tuesday I kept wondering who could have planted bombs at the Boston marathon. Friday morning, we found out.

I woke up to news of the slain MIT police officer, the carjacking, and then the shootout in Watertown and subsequent manhunt. I spent the morning monitoring all channels — Twitter, Facebook, Boston.com, Bostonglobe.com, WBZ News — to make sure everyone back home was okay. Andrew and I lived in Watertown for two years, less than a mile from the shootout that had happened overnight. We have friends and neighbors in the area and couldn’t believe we were seeing SWAT teams patrolling the streets where we used to live.

Friends checked in right away. One lives only a block away from the shootout. She said she smelled gunpowder and could feel buildings shake.

Names were released of two Chechen brothers who had lived in the U.S. for one year. This sounded like a foreign operation — an outside terrorist threat. Then they said the younger one was 19, a graduate of Cambridge Rindge & Latin.

I’d taught 7th & 8th grade at a charter school in Cambridge. Some of my 7th graders went to Rindge for high school, which meant they’d graduated with him. My heart broke for them, and I hoped they were okay.

I went to search for the younger boy’s name in my browser but accidentally started typing it into Mail. Two names auto-completed: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Alaina Tsarnaeva. My heart stopped as my inbox filtered messages from when I was teaching: lists of students on the honor roll, in detention, out sick…

No, no, no.

They had said he’d only been in the U.S. for a year. Perhaps this was someone else? Except the age was right. And the town. I didn’t know if he had a brother, and they hadn’t mentioned a sister yet.

I recognized a voice on WBZ and clicked over to see one of my former students, looking the same seven years later except for her glasses, talking about how she couldn’t believe it was Jahar. The journalist asked if they knew each other from high school. “No, middle school. We went to this little charter school before.”

Jahar Tsarnaev. Not Zo-kar, as the media had called him. An image clicked of a small boy with bright eyes and a big smile. I’d taught half of the seventh and eighth grade sections. He was in the other half. I hadn’t taught him, but it was a small school, and he was friends with my students. I remembered how tiny he was compared to the others, his quietness a welcome contrast to some of our more boisterous kids, and his huge smile. We had some tough kids in our school. He wasn’t one of them. So it took hours for me to connect this boy to the terrorist on television:

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At a middle school basketball game

When Andrew and I first met, my college roommate and I lived together in Cambridge, around the corner from where the Tsarnaevs lived. Every time I walked down our front steps, I heard a mix of Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole. We loved our international neighborhood. After Andrew and I married, we moved to Watertown and lived a quarter mile from where Jahar was eventually discovered. These places were our homes.

When I found out who the terrorist was, grief replaced fear — grief for the boy who got lost as he was becoming a man, grief for his victims, grief for his classmates, my former students, and grief for what he did to our community and city.

What he did was inexcusable. It’s unequivocally wrong. And I couldn’t reconcile the good kid I once knew with his actions.

As I think about him and what he did, it isn’t about good and evil so much as strength versus weakness. Being strong is much harder than being good. One can be good by default, a good that hasn’t been tested. Strength means action: standing up for what’s right, defending those weaker than ourselves, speaking up when necessary, and staying silent and allowing others to speak when their voices are needed.

The first responders and doctors and marathoners who ran to donate blood and blast witnesses who helped were all strong. Setting bombs in a crowd was weak. Terrorism is weak. The world tends toward entropy. It’s easy to destroy things and cause chaos. Strength comes from making: artists who show us who we are and who we can be, community leaders who draw people together through common hopes, teachers who encourage confidence and love of learning in their students, scientists who cure diseases and send us to space, construction workers who build roads and offices and houses, even strangers who share kindness in passing. And as we saw in Boston, individual strength leads to community strength.

My wish for Boston, Cambridge, and Watertown, for the greater Boston community and for the Chinese community, for the local communities of Dorchester, Medford, BU, MIT, and Rindge & Latin is for continued strength and for peace, for connections and for healing. And for Jahar… I wish him strength, too, to face what he did honestly.

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© 2016 Anindita Basu Sempere. 
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