Making Sense of the Senseless: Boston Marathon

By Paul Wright

“Life is not a race course of competitive examination. At worst it calls for endurance and at best it calls for a certain virtue in one’s dialogue in one’s dealings with oneself.” — Gore Vidal, in a letter to his sister

Boston Marathon
The scene following the bombings in Boston.

On Monday night, I cheated in on my daughters’ FaceTime call with their Aunt Katy, who teaches in Baltimore. Once the kids had said their goodbyes to her and left the room, she “looked” at me and said, “So do you scrap everything tomorrow and talk about Boston?”

“I don’t think so,” I replied, but I knew too that it could not, should not go unmentioned.

In fact, being a History teacher, I would feel remiss if I didn’t address the history that we live, as opposed to the stuff that others have lived. I knew we needed to do something, but I wasn’t sure what. In addition, I wasn’t sure how I could be ready for it, since I was still reeling.

Initial Stream of Thoughts

All of my “connections” to the horrible events on Boylston Street are tertiary, yet no less forceful in their impact: Josh, my former student and friend who paced me in my one and only Philly Marathon had “heard two booms 5 or 10 minutes after [he] passed the finish line.” An aide at our school had run it in plenty of time to get clear, and another acquaintance the same thing. My buddy Stu was a minute slow last year at the Steamtown Marathon, and didn’t qualify for Boston this year — bet he was relieved.

As is often the case with kids and adults, though, we can’t account for the connections we make, the immediate inputs which are triggered: where was I in my marathon at 4:10, and where was my family on the course? Josh and I had run Philly in memory of another former student and friend who had died tragically — would Brian have been there this year, and man do I still miss him.

At the heart of this input stream is still one of the connections to the earlier versions of ourselves, the feedback loop that kept cavemen alive (“What’s that growl around the corner? What is that smell coming from this stagnant pool? What weather do those clouds portend?”– okay, no neanderthal would say “portend,” but you get the idea). Call it the lizard brain, gut feelings, or simply instinctual choices which the likes of Gavin DeBecker, Jonah Lehrer, Malcolm Gladwell, and many others have mused about.

Coping with Tragedy

boston-marathon-bodySo how to handle this event which will, for the rest of our lives, simply be mentioned in shorthand — the “Boston Marathon bombings,” or “Boston 2013,” or “that marathon” in a classroom with kids? I went to bed early and exhausted, not sure what to make of Tuesday.

Early the next morning I awoke to head to the gym, but in my few minutes before departing I came across Bruce Schnier‘s excellent piece at TheAtlantic.com, The Boston Marathon Bombing: Keep Calm and Carry On.

Not only was it what I refer to as “the education gods smiling,” but it helped ground me personally, something that frankly was more necessary than any lesson plan if I was to be in front of kids with this thing sitting in the midst of us. The other piece I went to, once I got to school, is an email I have kept since receiving on the morning of Monday, May 2, 2011.

If that date doesn’t stand out for you, it will:

Dear Mr. Wright,

You probably don’t remember me, but I was in your social studies class as a freshman on September 11, 2001. I want you to know that even before today, I’ve often remembered your strength and wisdom that day for all of us scared and confused young students. I live in Washington, DC now where I’m about to graduate from my international development MA program and every time discussion of 9/11 comes up, I remember walking into your classroom and feeling safer when you started to break down for us what had happened.

I’ve meant to tell you how much that meant to me time and time again, but when I heard the news about Bin Laden this morning, I knew that I had to finally get to it! I imagine that today for for the next several days people will be talking about where they were on 9/11 and I will be recalling that morning in RHS and how you helped us start to learn about the new international context that has completely shaped our world. Thank you…Elizabeth

(Quick aside for the teachers reading: Elizabeth was, to this day, one of the hardest working students I ever taught, and who forgets them, right?)

Modeling for Students

The decision I made on Tuesday was to model for them an adult who was trying to make sense of the world — with what to make of the situation, with the connections that didn’t seem “relevant” but were no less present. To permit them to allow those things to flow through their heads, and look more closely at the ones that seem to hover there for a bit. And to allow that there was probably more than one of them who was living through situations which may have made Boston pale in comparison.

My principal’s opening announcement that day was a nod to what some of us could safely assume also about our kids, that they have been in many ways desensitized to violence as it occurs in their lives. I am in a suburban district, so in that way our kids’ lives are very different from a student in a city school. But this thing happened to all of us in different ways, and it was my job to open it up and see if people wanted to investigate it.

Student Reflection

Truth be told, it was my older students who seemed to have the most to say and share — about the value or shallowness of social media, the distinction in news coverage between this tragic singular event and an ongoing war in the middle east, and about Schnier’s piece, which I read in full to all my classes.

I don’t have immediate results to “quantify” what Tuesday looked like to the kids in 101 or 164, but for me one of the takeaways was that I did what I felt I needed to do on a day when our country was once again reeling from an assault on many of the things we believe make it great.

I don’t know if “Elizabeth” was in the room that day, or if someone will let me know someday that I did for them what they needed in class. But at the end of the day, I did for those kids — and myself — what I felt was best on a bad, bad day, and if I can’t be counted on to do that, then what am I doing in this job?

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