Recognizing Who We Are Today! (a draft)

We experienced a tragedy in (our community) last week. We lost a young man as the result of a traffic accident. He touched many hearts. The city, the district, the students were all impacted by the loss of (student), a student known by many for his affectionate and charming persona, an infectious personality. I listened to a couple of students the night of the tragedy talk about the immediacy, how quickly a life is taken, that we cannot quite comprehend the confusion such a loss leaves us when just hours before they were standing right next to the young man, full of life. We are all surely saddened by tragedy, yet, we are also enlightened by the way the students rallied around the celebration of this young man’s short life. In an intrigue, this experience speaks to an aspect of the beauty of our lives in (our community) as we recognize the diverse nature of our community.

On Friday, as the news flooded social media the night before, the students all wore white to honor the young man. I was amazed to look around the school and see nearly 90% of the student body dressed in white. The sight provided a welcome contrast to the negative image our district has attained in recent months. Here’s why.

What happened inside our school buildings on Friday mattered to the students, they were the ones being represented and cared for, and they responded with more unity than I have seen in my career as a teacher. I watched a school that put aside curriculum for the day, and reasoned with the reality of the human condition in every step of the way. In mid-day, there was a service, known as a ‘smudge’ provided by the young man’s family – his Native American heritage celebrated – and in attendance easily hundreds of students witnessed a cultural phenomena with open arms and respectful intrigue.

I said to a friend of mine late Thursday night, that (young man’s) loss would be a unifying force for allowing our students to recognize life as a whole rather than an individual need for survival. I watched kids from every walk of life hug one other, speak kindly to each other, and embrace grieving in a thoughtful and beautiful manner. (young man’s) death was responsible for that coming together of a school district.

Even more intriguing, I attended a football game that night, a ‘Friday night lights’ experience during which both the visitors and the home team wore white to symbolize (our community) tragic loss. It was remarkable to watch the unification of two school’s students who all recognized together the beauty of life and the tragedy of loss. But together they created and expressed a natural silver lining. Ironically, several schools around the region also showed unity and compassion by wearing white in a symbolic gesture of support. My boss said to me today, ‘It’s a small world’ when I shared my delight in the actions of many.

This weekend we celebrate the loss of a beautiful young man, one that I did not know personally, but understood to have touched the lives of many, including many students in the drama program, for which I am an advisor. The lesson learned from this weekend’s start of the healing process, is that we as a district do embrace the beauty of a unique population of student body that do and can believe in one another if given the proper resources. We as a community need to do our part in assuring our students that we can go forward together.

I think (young man) is imagining how special our world is given his new perspective, and his engaging smile is suggestive of our need to recognize his gift and not forget the message his role in the circle of life provides us all.

*names withheld to respect the student and family.

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How Will Society React

Justine

Justine Ruszczyk

 

In Minneapolis, a white, blonde woman, of means was gunned down by a Somali police officer. Let me say this a different way. A woman in a dark alley was recently shot dead by a cop on patrol in south Minneapolis. Or I could say, after making a call to 911, a woman in certain distress approached a responding squad car, and the officer in the passenger side, fired his weapon across his partner through a window, and she died in the alley of a fatal wound. How do the three descriptions differ from each other? One might wonder which context of this absolute tragedy will matter in the outcome.

Here is the truth. We live in a society that places priority on means. In other words, money does play a role in how situations of tragedy are handled. However, there are many other variables in play here. This isn’t about a white police officer gunning down a person of color, without explanation or cause. This is actually about an officer of color ending the life of an attractive blonde woman. Take the blonde out of the story, this is the story of a woman being gunned down for no apparent reason. Either way it is described, there will be no pleasant outcome. We don’t know there wasn’t a reason because both officers in the patrol had their body cams turned off, another variable.

We don’t know the motivation for the gunshot because it was dark, the woman approached the vehicle, there was no dash cam, and apparently no witnesses beyond the officers and the woman. We are as a society asked to appreciate the reasoning and risk, and thereby respect the duress of our police departments when responding to any call, in any circumstance. I was gently reminded of this weeks ago, when writing about the Philando Castile verdict, how an officer is clearly always walking into danger, whether it be a routine traffic stop, or an already identified point of threat. So this commentary is not about our police force and their right or wrong doings.

This commentary is about how our society is going to handle this current crisis. How is social media going to react? What will be the chain of priority when handling this investigation? Does it take more precedent than the string of killings that have occurred on our streets in the last month, not including the twin cities but across the country? How do we decide that one case matters more than countless others? God help us, that we live in a world that the color of our skin creates a definition of what we determine to be important.

The clear fact is that a woman died at the hands of our police force. The truth is no one knows why except for the officers involved and in circumstances of such terrible outcome, in the moment of haste, worry, concern, personal threat, even their hearts were certainly adrenaline driven in the moment. On the surface we can be quite sure there was a lot of tension and panic involved. In the end though, a woman is dead, and another police force is under scrutiny, and the twin cities has become national news.

So, how do we go forward? Some people might pray to help themselves find calm and balance and heal. Some are pragmatic and will return to their lives and this will be a sad afterthought. Some will move out of the neighborhood, change the locks, buy home security systems, take self defense. Some will remain quietly nervous for the rest of their lives.

We as a society need somehow to respond to one another, and recognize this isn’t a race issue, not a gender based issue, not an easily explainable issue. What is true is that a young woman has lost her life and the treasures of her future and her fiance, family and friends are forever altered. We can try to move forward. We can try to find understanding, empathy, and peace throughout the confusion. There is no easy solution, there is only reality, and the acknowledgment of horrific human error.

Philando Castile

castile

NY Daily photo credit

I recently told a friend of mine I have sometime wished I was black, and as the words left my mouth, the expression on his face indicated to me he was immediately offended. I knew I’d made a horrific presumption, and felt compelled to find him a little later on to continue our dialogue.  I wasn’t really sure what I was asking, but he sat me down and asked me a question.

He said, ‘as you sit in that chair, do you feel like you would be where you are, as a black man, including your personality and everything you are today?’

I had to think about the question. I had to get past trying to find the right answer and really think about how I was going to respond. I did not know what my answer could possibly be because I have never been a person of color. I have always been white.

This afternoon, when I first heard the news of the verdict in the shooting of Philando Castile, I felt immediately sick to my stomach. For a year I have replayed that viral video in my mind, imagining only one outcome. I believed the officer would be found guilty of manslaughter. I thought it was an easily defined case. I felt like I had come to know Philando through all the news reports and the expose’s of his life and the stories his community had expressed of who he was in our society. But I forgot one simple truth. He was a black man pulled over for a routine traffic stop. He was suspected of being involved in a robbery based upon his description. The only solid evidence that suggested he had been involved in the burglary was the color of his skin.

If that had been me, a white guy, with a gun pointed at my body by a peace officer, I am willing to bet, I could have said everything Philando expressed in the final minutes of his life, and I could have reached with my right arm and found my I.D. without the officer feeling compelled to discharge seven bullets into my body. This officer didn’t simply fire a couple of rounds, He fired seven times at point blank range. And there in that moment, while his girlfriend recorded the whole incident, Philando Castile died.

Justice seemed evident in this case, I didn’t even imagine the jury would take as long as they did to come back with a verdict. I only imagined it would be an open and shut case. That was until I saw the jury selection. I knew that when we had a jury of over 20 white people and two people of color, the case for Philando had taken a dangerous turn. I knew that when the officer was coached to cry in the witness stand, Philando’s integrity was in trouble.

I also knew I couldn’t get out of my car as a white man and express my sorrow and rage to any person of color without coming off patronizing. So instead, I called another friend, and told him he was the first person that came to my mind. Now this friend asked me if I was surprised by the verdict. I think I waffled my answer and said something like, “Well, yeah, I guess, well no, well I’m just sad.”

He agreed with my sentiments, and then began to speak of the systemic failure of our society to recognize the inherent discrimination of the African- American culture. Interestingly, he didn’t blame the cop that gunned down an innocent man. Instead he talked about how our society (his African-American culture) has to become proactive in changing the mindset of how we cope with our discrimination. He immediately prayed that there would be no acting out and a peaceful protest might occur.

I agreed with him and thanked him for letting me listen to his ideals, those of which I have always respected and believed. I finished the call, and sat in my car, and thought about what I would do next. All I could think about was how sad I was with the outcome of the day’s events. All I could do was feel like a white guy trying to wrap my head around this horrific tragedy. I still don’t have any answers, except only to say I’m sorry Philando, I am truly sorry this happened to you.

The Next Day (Why Paris?)

When sun arose to widen sleepy eyelid

A calm begun soon turned memory horrific

We wake shadowed in darkness, a slow embrace

Shattered dreams begun inside stranger despair.

The news however distorted cannot rid

Crying heart, confused eyes, reality’s prolific

Mastery of human nature’s fallible race.

Once thrive her eyes this morning lacking air.

No longer are minds able to disappear

Find shelter beyond the torment of confusion.

Instead again it is sadness, our tears release

That city of lights, extinguished incessant fear

Will rule the day, while gathered in circular motion

We wander, wonder, watchful, gasping for peace.

Sad Lives

These are the strangers, we pass them by,

and teach the children,

while they are still sequestered to hold our hand,

please never speak to the

strangers,

yet, while we stroll by,

look and stare, and judge and define,

like mom and dad,

so that when you grow older,

you won’t nearly have the same trepidation,

toward judging those around you,

because your value system has gradually,

over time,

milkshakes, animated cartoons, muppets,

Sesame Street letter, numbers and cookies,

all lessons bringing our reality together.

~

Forget about what’s inside,

at least while someone is watching,

especially a stranger nearby,

sad lives.

Wanting Peace – Chronology of Hope

I

When I was a child I wondered about Vietnam,

couldn’t wait to see the names scroll by

the evening news, Walter Conkrite’s lovely sigh

would ring in my mind until my later bedtime.

~

I saw the protestors, I lived by their side,

I was the kid the one with dreams and hope,

everyone else jaded with shards of rope,

to me this all seemed rather a cool slide.

~

When Malcolm was shot I was only five

years old, yet young enough to curate

a foundation of wonderment to relate

my own upbringing to his will to survive.

II

Shards of glass tore through the landscape

I remember Bloody Sunday to wit

storms of lost souls with no regret

their master the King slain without escape.

~

I recall my childhood the assassinations

today an older soul was still watching scroll

the names scan across on the idiot box below

the regular news, the stuff of our emotions.

~

In California, a presidential wannabe

gunned down without a moment good bye

where on the ground the nation’s own lie

the world went on, we had needs to see.

III

Instead of losing our nation’s leaders,

we’re taking away those we don’t know

those we have often times told to go,

yet somehow they cannot be seceders.

~

We argue commonality and dated resource

no one really knows who will need defend

a nation in peril of its society soon to upend

ignorance of reasoning, (bare) arms of course

~

I read the news today, heard about the fire

within whose wasteful rage to wallow close

to take a life that matter so to all of those

family that in his life he tried to aspire.

~

What happens in our world today,

such to disillusion the American way.