The law enforcement officials and terrorism experts interviewed on cable news in the hours after the attack oozed authority. The marathon bombers, they said, could be halfway down the eastern seaboard by nightfall. At my wife’s workplace the next day—a research lab on an Air Force base outside Boston—talk turned to 9/11 and how the lockdown protocols held people in the office overnight. The students in my classes told me about injured family and friends. We learned from a classmate’s parent that one of the teachers at our son’s preschool had been at the finish line and helped reunite traumatized children with their adults. The bombers’ likely escape meant that we should all continue to be vigilant and afraid. To the talking heads on cable news, the threat of violence and actual violence were one and the same.
Three days after the attack, the FBI released images of a pair of Chechen Kyrgyz American brothers who shared an apartment in Cambridge. By that night, one was dead. A manhunt ensued for the other. In a twenty-block area of Watertown, a suburb of the city, SWAT teams in armored vehicles rolled in.
We live in a small town just beyond the reaches of the official shelter-in-place order, but stayed home the day of the manhunt all the same. While our son watched cartoons that morning, my wife and I stared at our phones. The suspects killed a police officer at MIT, then carjacked and robbed a man at gunpoint before engaging in a firefight with police. The violence was breathtaking and erratic in its scope. So too was the spectacle of the city’s transformation into a militarized zone. This was Boston, not a war-torn city. The enemy wasn’t a phalanx of militia fighters but a kid with a gun.
After lunch, we took a drive. A Friday in April opened up around us—raw wind, low gray ceiling of clouds, muddy woods and fields in all directions. Cows at the dairy farm down the street crowded bales of hay, tearing off clumps and chewing. A deer skittered across the road. A bright red fox flashed in the ferns and was gone. The only traffic we encountered were police SUVs and military vehicles full of soldiers from nearby Fort Devens.
Later that night, the younger brother—Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—was apprehended in a backyard, bleeding, having cut through the shrink wrap of a winterized boat and climbed inside. In the coming months, details would emerge about his life and motives. Profiled in a controversial cover story in Rolling Stone, he became a source of national fascination, the subject of countless think pieces.
He was nineteen, portrayed as handsome in a straggly, baby-faced way. He attended a regional university like the one where I teach. He majored in marine biology. I had no trouble imagining him slouched at a desk, bored. The night he lay hiding in the boat, he used a pencil he found and scribbled his thoughts on the wall, a kind of manifesto. The attack was retribution for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians,” he wrote, “but most of you already know that.”
The quality of his writing wasn’t too different from essays I have received over the years, passionately argued, but marred by logical fallacies and grammar mistakes. In photographic evidence shared at the trial, streaks of blood spilled over his words like a teacher’s red ink. Where I might have circled a passage to raise a question or ask for context, bullet holes suggested excision.
Nineteen is a liminal age. Absent a chance to define ourselves, other forces stand at the ready to do so for us—family members, cultural traditions, career trajectories. An awareness of the who, what, and why of those dynamics isn’t always easy to cultivate, but, as a teacher, I try.
On the first day of class I look around the room and watch students pecking at phones, nervous, expectant, waiting for their names to be called. In that moment, they could be anyone. Over the semester I ask them to test their identities in the essays they write, to see themselves on their own terms. I sometimes wonder aloud whether their childhoods have ended or if they are still coasting along in them. It’s a tease, and also a dare. Essays are made things, I tell them, equal parts critical thinking and creative engagement. I suggest that if they can change words on a page, they might also change their lives. Had Tsarnaev been a student in my class, I might have encouraged him to write about his experiences as an immigrant or what drew him to want to study sea life. I might have challenged him to read Moby-Dick.
I teach in an old mill town, a place whose best days may have been a hundred years ago. Options here come at a premium. My students are often the first in their families to go to college. After a day on campus, they put in eight-hour shifts at grocery stores and Dunkin drive-thru windows. They don’t always know—or believe—they belong here. For students of color, the overwhelming whiteness of the faculty drives this home.
It’s no surprise to me that many students opt for fidelity to their past instruction over the kind of risk-taking I’m after. They have been trained to write for rubrics. Good grades offer a reward for conformity.
There is too much at stake for them to try something new and, at the same, there is also too much at stake not to. The decisions they make right now will reverberate through the rest of their lives. The exorbitant cost of college means that they will be paying for this experience long after they have forgotten my name.
Those most likely to tell the truth about their lives are the ones with nothing left to lose. One woman writes about her father who repaired wheelchairs for a living and sexually assaulted his customers. Another writes about hiking with her boyfriend in the woods near her house and discovering a dead baby in a duffel bag. In telling stories society would rather they buried, these writers cultivate a sense of agency where before there had been only silence and shame. They show the rest of us what can be gained from courage.
Not all the essays I receive are as dire. Most take on innocuous topics—hometowns, grandparents, days at the beach. But as the semester progresses and students grow more comfortable, even innocuous topics begin to reveal hidden depths. The smallness of their hometowns comes into focus. Their grandparents’ lives turn heroic. They see days at the beach for the rare gifts that they are. I don’t have to convince them they belong in college. When they write freely, they see it for themselves.
For every classroom success, however, there are dozens more missed opportunities and mistakes, some I make without even realizing it until years later. There are moments when my students and I miss each other, when our conversations reach an impasse.
One day, the subject of flag burning comes up. An Air Force veteran, who has written compellingly all semester about the camaraderie he found in the military, says that if he saw someone burning a flag, he’d kill them. There is no talking him out of it. He knows it makes him a hypocrite to fight for freedom while curtailing its expression. He doesn’t care.
Our time in class is not a guarantee of anything. The past bears down in myriad ways on the hours we spend together. On the far side of the semester looms an uncertain future. Learning is a threshold some find a way to cross.
I may be able to help.
I may not.
Last December as finals week approached, I made class optional and told my students I would be in our room at the appointed hour if any of them wanted to stop by and chat more about their final projects. I didn’t expect anyone to show up, but was pleasantly surprised when one of my criminal justice majors walked in.
In nearly ten years on the job, I have taught dozens of criminal justice majors—future cops. Most of them are white, and many come from law enforcement families. They write about their fathers and grandfathers, the dominant mythos is one of service, sacrifice, and courage in the face of danger. Though sometimes they allude to “bad apples” in the force, mention of racism or police brutality is seldom made. This particular student had spent his semester writing about family vacations, his spirituality, what he learned from having a girlfriend who was from South America.
“I’m picking up quite a bit of Spanish,” he said. “But I don’t always say the right word. Her mom thinks I’m funny.”
As we talked, I tried to imagine him as a police officer, peering down into my car and writing me a speeding ticket. I do the same with nursing majors and future teachers. They take my blood at doctors’ offices. They sit across the table from me at parent-teacher conferences. It’s a way of making them real.
I asked him what made him want to join the police. What he said surprised me, not because it was a surprising answer, but because of how closely it cleaved to the promotional materials the university uses to pitch the program. He wanted to make a difference, to make his community a better place. The job would keep him from boring office work.
There were parts of the profession that troubled him, he admitted, namely the violence that had sparked nationwide protests last summer, but he felt confident that he could keep himself clear from those complications so long as he performed his duties with integrity. For him, police brutality came down to cops making bad choices. He quoted one of his criminal justice professors whose favorite thing to say was, “You can’t fix stupid.” If he kept his head about him, he reasoned, he might even be able to affect a change in the culture of policing.
I let him talk, if only so that he might hear himself. He seemed to have no idea about what lay ahead, neither the boredom nor the risk. How might he feel about an office job when he was standing in a winter rain all day waving traffic around a construction site? If the thought of violence troubled him now, what would the fact of it do later on? Who would he become after being a witness to—and a party to—that violence?
I mentioned that I sometimes caught a glimpse of him and his classmates lined up in the quad. They gathered in matching khaki pants and black shirts while a pair of uniformed officers circled around them.
“What’s that like?”
“Seems intense,” I said.
“I’ve only really gotten yelled at once,” he said, grinning and brushing it off. “We’re supposed to carry two pens in our shirt pocket, and I had a black one and a blue one. Turns out they’re both supposed to be black.”
I laughed reflexively at the punchline. But as we kept talking, and even afterward, on the chilly walk back to my office and the rest of my day, the detail about the pens gnawed at me. He was being indoctrinated and didn’t know it. Or maybe he knew but felt as though he had no choice but to live with his decision. Maybe he thought that on the other side of his training, the pressures would ease. Unfortunately, you can’t escape an ideology by hoping it changes. You end up becoming it instead. Perpetuating it. You normalize stories that in other settings might set off alarm bells. What if I yelled at him about the color of his pens?
The lesson forced upon him in the quad that day—in front of all his classmates—was that scrupulously catering to the whims of a superior officer, even when those whims were absurd, was all that mattered. The lesson was one of obedience and abuse. Debasement of any kind only breeds more of the same. In my classes a pen is a tool for expanding a student’s potential, not limiting it through fear.
“When are men dangerous?” the poet William Stafford wrote in the opening pages of Down in My Heart, a memoir of his imprisonment as a conscientious objector during World War II. He didn’t answer the question, but let it hang there while he began the story of a day that nearly saw him killed.
It was March 22, 1942. In McNeil, Arkansas, the fruit trees were blooming. Stafford and two friends on furlough from camp talked “cordially” with a few men in the town square, all of them “loafing around in the Sabbath calm.” Bob had a drawing board and painted a watercolor of a dilapidated storefront. George wrote a poem in a notebook. Stafford carried a letter in his shirt pocket and a copy of Leaves of Grass.
They had been in Arkansas several months, doing soil conservation work. Not all of the neighbors had been friendly, Stafford admitted, but some of the Black families had shown a reciprocal kindness.
The men knew to keep a low profile in town and, on the day in question, they had been. Bob painted. George wrote. Stafford read. But once the townsmen learned that these strangers came from the camp near Magnolia, events took a turn. They began to peer over Bob’s shoulder as he painted, inquiring as to why he was painting a storefront. They wanted to know what George had written in his notebook. They demanded to see Stafford’s letter.
As the interrogation gathered steam, the crowd grew. A few men turned into fifteen, twenty-five. They snatched George’s poem, which Stafford described as “Sandburgian” and a “blunderbuss,” and hollered at its mention of the railroad, claiming it wasn’t poetry but information. If it was poetry, they said, it would rhyme. “Leaves of Grass throbbed under my arm,” Stafford wrote. But he said nothing. He knew that even a hint of hostility or belligerence could be seen as an invitation to harm. Already threats were being made, words like “yellow” and “coward” issuing from the crowd. A man tore Bob’s painting from its drawing board and started to rip it up only to be stopped by another man who wanted to keep it for evidence. A voice suggested breaking the drawing board over their heads. Another suggested stringing them up.
The police arrived and listened to the accusations of spying leveled by the men in the crowd. They studied Bob’s painting and read George’s poem. They opened and read the letter in Stafford’s pocket, passing it around for the curious to see. They confiscated Leaves of Grass. For the better part of an hour, Stafford waited and watched, patiently and considerately answering the questions he was asked.
Then finally, having given neither the police nor the men of McNeil a reason to escalate the situation, the objectors were swept into a squad car and returned to camp. Before the day was over, Stafford reported, sixty to seventy-five people had joined the scrum—some from towns as far as ten miles away. They later learned that Bob’s painting, George’s poem, and Stafford’s letter had been put on display at the local police department, evidence that the community was once again safe and secure.
When are men dangerous? In the aftermath of the mobbing, the question had an immediate significance. At camp that night, they doubled the watch, fearing retribution. By some grace none came. But the trouble remained: If their mere presence in town could spark the threat of such violence, how were they to live?
Day by day, they answered that question with their actions. They pooled their books into a library and formed study groups, gave lectures, staged debates, put on plays, shared music and song. They decided to rise before dawn to pursue a life of the mind before giving the labor of their bodies to the US Forest Service. For Stafford rising early to write became a lifelong habit. On one such a morning he asked: “When are men dangerous?”
Coming on a century later, the question reads like a Zen koan. One thing I have learned from contemplating it is that people aren’t only dangerous when they commit and threaten violence—the opposite can also be true. To the men in that mob in Arkansas, conscientious objectors were the dangerous ones. Art and poetry were the threats. Theirs was a view shared widely across the country and propagated by the government. So fundamentally had they wed themselves to the logic of war and nationalistic pride that even the faintest flicker of dissent had to be snuffed out lest it destroy them.
Such fears are common and metastasize from one historical event to the next, from 9/11 to the marathon bombing to the lies that fomented an insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2020. Mobs have answers. Poets don’t. As a writer who for fifty years rose before first light to set pen to paper, Stafford made a life of transgressing the violence at the heart of our culture. Rather than defend his certainties, he embraced their destruction. Asked at the end of his career which of his poems was his favorite, he said he’d trade them all for a shot at the next.
It was spitting snow the day my best friend back home in Indiana called to tell me about his brother. I had been helping my son with his math homework and looking out the window, enjoying the way the flakes stuck to the forsythia. I heard the grief in his voice before he could even choke out the story. It didn’t seem real. I kept saying I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. He blamed himself. He blamed police culture. A twenty-year veteran of the force, his brother had severe PTSD that had gone untreated.
The men he worked alongside mercilessly mocked him for not supporting Trump. His marriage and finances were in shambles. Alienated and alone, no hope for the future, he turned the violence inward and took his own life. My friend, who is a history professor, said it was a comfort to remember that nothing ever lasted, that we would all be gone soon enough. We talked for an hour. Out my window the snow kept falling. My son scraped an eraser across his math worksheet, blew the page clean.
I called my friend often in the coming weeks. His sleep was shit and he couldn’t stop torturing himself with thoughts of what he might have done differently. I had no answers. There weren’t any. One reason to learn to tell your own story, I have admonished students over the years, is that it may help you understand someone else’s. When things fall apart, it may help you put them back together. Another reason is to acknowledge that there are limits to what you control. Some stories are bigger than you.
I didn’t know my friend’s brother, having only met him once at a wedding, but I’m guessing that as a young man he, too, equated a career in law enforcement with the good feeling that comes from serving your community. It is noble to want to protect people from harm. Who was protecting him? His fellow officers treated his human response to trauma as weakness. They made him feel like a traitor.Standing before my classes, the thread I hold is my protest against the relentlessness of their dehumanization.
Whether it is turned outward in a brazen display of bloodshed like the marathon bombing or inward in an act of desperation, the violence that erupts from people lacking agency and imagination should surprise no one. Human beings have limits. Too often, however, we interpret those limits as shortcomings and personal failures when in reality they are manifestations of a power structure working exactly as intended.
Regardless of the dominant narrative, violence and the threat of violence from dispossessed individuals isn’t nearly the threat that is posed by institutions and ideologies looking to expand their control. Those in power exploit humanity’s limits for material gain. Our capacity for love and fear and to do harm to one another makes us easy to manipulate. And when we accept without question the stories others have written for us, we make it that much easier. It only follows that my friend’s brother would be made to feel like a traitor among his peers. His trauma proved that even after decades on the job he still hadn’t become fully desensitized to violence. He committed the cardinal sin of being a person. In the end, only one option remained for him to remedy that dilemma.
A story is a negotiation between what might have been, what is, and what still could be. You tell the story of who you are with your every breath. You become the stories you tell. In his poem “The Way It Is,” Stafford says it better, writing, “There’s a thread you follow… / While you hold it you can’t get lost.” The line may not sound particularly transgressive until you consider what we are up against. American culture feeds upon lost people. What we hold are grudges and guns. In a system hellbent on reducing everything to an economic imperative that benefits but a few, poetry and art and storytelling are written off as indulgences rather than recognized as life-giving necessities.
Standing before my classes, the thread I hold is my protest against the relentlessness of their dehumanization. In their final reflections, they express surprise and gratitude for having been seen and acknowledged: In this class I found the joy in writing again. I feel more confident as a learner. I gained the courage to speak my truth. I will use these skills for the rest of my life. I will miss this class. I never knew school could be like this.
It’s rare that I see them once the semester has ended. They spend the next few years working through their degrees then graduate and are gone. Occasionally, one discovers me on social media and strikes up a friendship. But mostly they vanish, disappearing back into the general public and whatever fates await them. Whether they hold onto the enthusiasm of their final reflections isn’t something I get to know. And neither do I control those outcomes. All I have are our moments, when a word might unlock a possibility, when silence might blossom into understanding. The work requires vulnerability and patience, from my students and from me. We are not just writing individual stories—we are writing a shared one.
Last year, I caught a glimmer of that thread. At the beginning of the pandemic, when we were trying to limit our trips to the grocery store, my wife signed us up for a milk delivery service. On Tuesday mornings that spring and into the summer, a big pale yellow truck from Tully’s Farm pulled up bearing milk and eggs.
The driver was a former student of mine. The first time we saw each other we stood talking in the driveway a minute, catching up, masked and at a distance. He had just graduated in May. This was his first full-time job.
“I was supposed to be a cop,” he said wryly. “But people don’t really like cops. Everybody likes the milkman.”
I imagined him driving around town with the radio on, the windows rolled down, soaking up sunlight and late spring air. I knew the job couldn’t pay that much and likely he carried significant student loan debt. He’d have to figure something else out to be sustainable for the long haul. For the moment, however, he had a story: Everybody likes the milkman.
It wasn’t dramatic or the kind of stance that would serve as a call to action for others. In an era of enormous challenges—racial injustice, rising fascism, climate catastrophe—it barely seems worth mentioning. But one choice, no matter how small, paves the way for the next. And a lifetime of such choices makes possible a future not yet written. In a world poised to devour people whole, his is a dangerous story.