by Ursula Zeydler
Ursula is now back home in Forest Hills, but last April, she was still living in Cambridge, Massachusetts and getting her Masters in education policy at Harvard. She wrote this essay about a phone call she received on April 15th, the day of the Boston Marathon bombing. – Marlene Berlin
Monday evening, as I sat in the darkness of my living room watching the disturbing images of Boston’s blood-spattered streets, shredded flags from various nationalities still blowing in the cool April breeze, footage of terror on the faces of bystanders waiting for their loved ones to cross the finish line, and the heartbreaking image of thousands of marathon runners who were halted in confusion at mile-marker 25, I felt paralyzed by my own realization that this time, this terrorist act in particular, hit too close to home.
After all, this had all unfolded less than a mile from my home in Cambridge. I finally turned CNN off and tried to process the events of the day in silence. Just then, my phone lit up and I noticed that the screen reflected “Cesar MOM.”
On Monday, I received scores of phone calls, voicemails, text messages, emails, What’s-App’s, you name it, from family and friends calling to make sure I was okay. “Cesar MOM” wasn’t a call I was expecting, however.
“Cesar MOM” was a number that was essentially on my speed dial that first year and so I smiled as I picked up the phone, thinking about how much has changed since that time. Here’s how the conversation unfolded:
Me: “Mrs. Nunez?”
Cesar: “Ms. Zeydler – you sad?”
Me: “Oh. Hi Cesar! Thank you for calling. Yes, I feel a little bit sad today. But I’m not scared anymore. And I’d rather feel sad than scared any day.”
Cesar: “Ms. Zeydler – remember when I came to your class and I was a bad kid? When I was making you so mad at me that your face turned red?”
Me: “Hmm, I remember a few challenging days but I think we were just getting to know each other. And Cesar, my face never turned red.”
Cesar: “And remember when it was Martin Luther King month?
Me: “You mean, Black History Month?”
Cesar: “Yeah. And Ms. Zeydler, remember you was so mad at me that day?”
Me: “I’m not sure I can think of that right now. Why was I mad at you that day, Cesar?”
Cesar: “Because I wouldn’t say the Black History poem.”
Me: “You mean something that you were supposed to recite? Oh yes, I remember that day. I was so upset that you didn’t read the poem because it was special to me and to the class. That could have been a red-faced day for me, you’re right, Cesar.
Cesar: “Yeah, you had a red face after you was yelling.” (snickers audibly)
Me: “Okay Cesar, so what about Black History Month?”
Cesar: “Nah, Ms. Zeydler, it isn’t about Black History Month, it’s about the poem. The poem I learned from Martin Luther King. I wanted to tell it to you today.
Me: “You memorized the poem? But Cesar, that was almost 4 years ago.”
Cesar: “I knew the poem then, too. But you know I was a bad kid and I liked seeing when your face got red.” (snickers audibly, again)
Me: “Okay, Cesar, that’s wonderful that you now know the poem but”—he interrupts me.
Cesar: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.“… Ms. Zeydler, do you think that the people who blew up the Marathon today learn about Martin Luther King in school like we did? ‘Cus if they don’t, their teachers should talk to you.”
After we hung up the phone, I cried for the first and last time that day. My conversation with Cesar gave me a chance to pause, even if momentarily, to forget about the insanity outside, and reflect upon the importance of the work we do in education. I don’t think about it often enough, especially when conversations get caught up in bitter union disputes, corrupt politics, school closures and most recently, large-scale cheating scandals. However, my true purpose of pursuing this work, what drives me at my core, is to provide the next generation with an educated society that is safe, democratic, moral, just and protects the future of the innocent.
When confronted with a day like Monday, I strongly believe that the best way to restore our faith in humankind is to dive into our work and deepen the values that we collectively share. Our determination to expel terror as swiftly as it arises, to embrace progress and move toward unity, is what binds us as a people and provokes those who attempt to dampen our spirits and break our resolve.
Despite how discouraged, scared and angry I felt after the events this week, I can’t lose sight of this vision. Our job as a nation is to ensure that all kids feel loved by people close to them, learn about history, albeit oftentimes painful, from their teachers, and hear about the possibility of peace from Americans like Dr. King.
Furthermore, we, as educators, siblings, parents, friends and community members, must find a way to cherish the beauty of life in spite of incomprehensible hatred, and move forward with the brightest of lights amid the darkness that has descended over Boston and elsewhere worldwide. Alas, there will be more pain tomorrow and for weeks to come. One day at a time, however, we will prevail… for Cesar.