Threads of Peace

“Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”  Mother Jones

#Newtown

I was born and raised in Newtown, Connecticut. I went to college and never moved back there again. Instead, I started my journey as an urban educator and a vagabond traveler, but Newtown always remained my hometown. I never expected to see it trending on Twitter.

As a teacher working with young people in Manhattan, it was a strange experience after I learned about the tragic events there. A lot of the youth that I work with in New York have seen too much violence in their lives. And yet, at that moment, I felt like the most affected person in my school. It hit so close to home. I remembered back to my days as a carefree kid in one of the other elementary schools in Newtown. I spent my days playing soccer and drawing superheroes. I feared nothing.

I started writing this on the subway last December, right after the horror in Newtown happened.  I knew I wanted to begin to write purposefully about peace, about non-violent education and the need to educate for goodness, hope and healing in the face of such a senseless tragedy.

#Ooze

Ooze

(drawing by Josh Moreira) 

Over the past decade, Brooklyn has become my home.  I feel safe in New York and am grateful for the fact that I don’t live in fear. This past Sunday morning, I woke up after celebrating my nephew’s high school graduation in Chicago to learn that a former student of mine had been shot and killed on the street in his Bronx neighborhood. Ivan (AKA Ooze) was only 21 years old.

After I heard the news of his death, I began remembering the small details that only an English teacher might remember. The circles he drew to dot his i’s and exclamation points, the fight he put up against Holden Caufield as a spoiled trust-fund baby, and his epically deep sense of interpretation, wordplay and irony. He was hard, to be sure. But he had a spirit and brilliance that always shone through his rough exterior. I was glad I had brief video of him to share online, dropping knowledge in an interview and getting light dancing in the high school hallways. We carry those we lose in our remembrance of their lives.

Although I worked in the Bronx, I never lived there.  As a white woman from Connecticut, I always try to reflect upon and recognize my role, my place, and my privilege.  I know I have never experienced even a fraction of the hardcore violence that Ivan saw in his life. At the fundraiser for his funeral, I saw so many former students. They told me about another friend that had lost his life to gun violence just the week before.  Like Ivan, lost far too young to a senseless crime. Things will never be the same.

#needforpeace

The first time I went to the annual Anarchist Book Fair in NYC, I bought a t-shirt that read “Books Are Weapons in the War of Ideas.” It was from the librarians at Radical Reference and features a dove flying with a book in its talons. Presumably, the content of the book sparks peaceful learning and action.  As much as I love the sentiment, one of the most challenging things I experience as an educator is finding a shared language with students, one which does not revolve around competition or conflict to find solutions to questions and problems. The metaphor of militancy, the idea of warring over ideas, is inherently a violent one.

In times of tragedy, it is important to be of service. It is, however, perhaps more important to love and cherish each other in our waking lives. I feel a deep obligation to protect, defend and inform the young people I work with in the struggle against violence in their lives. Not just local violence, but all forms of assault. Recently, the National Rifle Association proposed a damnable idea: to teach school children to handle weapons beginning in first grade. How could anyone think that more intimacy with weapons will make us safer? As ubiquitous as it seems at times, we must remove weaponology from our language and our culture. We must leverage tools that build us up, not tear us down.

In my day to day, I try to take a play from Newark Mayor Cory Booker and take a public stance against hateful practices in thought, language and action. Yet even the research I conduct now, the Drop Knowledge Project, is about explosions of insight and information in spaces of peer education and activism. What would the world look like if words weren’t used as weapons? What if armament was not the first reaction in times of malcontent or despair? When will weapons no longer be used to solve problems, but seen as the tools through which violent action is accepted and perpetuated?

#redefine #power

I finished writing this essay listening to “Murder to Excellence” as my flight from Chicago landed in New York. I couldn’t help but feel a deep sadness and anger for all the unnecessary loss: “Power to the people, when you see me, see you.” What’s so different between the Newtown shooting and Ivan’s death? We must recognize the humanity that bonds us. We must bring peace, live non-violence, and act in ways that demonstrate our commitment to healing despite our anger, our outrage and our pain.

If and when the Sandy Hook Elementary School is opened again, I hope it is opened as a purposeful place of non-violence education. When I publish my first book, I’m dedicating it to Ivan and to the struggle for peace, to secure counter-spaces to organize against gun violence. I write this in the memory of those lost in Newtown, and to Ooze. In the words of Myrlie Evers, the wife of murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evers, we are left with no choice but to rise up “for us, the living.

#stopthegunviolence

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~ by Elizabeth Bishop on 2013.06.07.

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