Wednesday, April 3, 2013

From Sorrow to Triumph


To Kill a Mockingbird resonates with me and many others. Its characters inspired this blog; through it, I celebrate the best and lament the worst in human nature. I often feel like young Jem Finch after he watches his father, Atticus, carefully construct a logical defense for Tom Robinson. Jem is sure that his father has won the day and Robinson’s freedom, but the jury still finds Robinson guilty, and Jem loses faith in his neighbors. It is Miss Maudie Atkinson who offers comfort.

Miss Maudie tells Jem that good people live in Maycomb. A good judge asked Atticus to take the case in the knowledge that no other attorney would provide a vigorous defense. The good Atticus accepts and in doing so, he also accepts derision and spite from some members of his community. Through the trial, Atticus expects his children to summon the good in them. He requires that Scout not fight because some people call her father names; he instructs her not to use the commonplace and common N-word. Atticus even disciplines Jem when he takes out his fear and confusion on those camellias of which Mrs. Dubose is so fond.

Still the knowledge that men and women in Maycomb could risk Tom’s life and endanger the well-being of his family by sending him to prison, then return to business as usual is a terrible lesson for Jem to learn. It is his initiation into adulthood, the moment when innocence is stripped away like a veil dropped.

I can remember such moments in my own life for sadly, even after we think all innocence has been lost, we shore it up, take up hope, and believe again.

Like Jem, I was inconsolable on May 4, 1970 when fellow citizens, Ohio National Guardsmen, some bearing live ammunition, fired upon students protesting Kent State in Ohio. Four died and so did my innocence.

An official, so afraid of peaceable assembly and First Amendment privileges, so determined to restore the public peace, ordered live ammunition be loaded in deadly weapons. Years later, I still dream about the kids so full of passion to set the world right again, and I dream about the guardsmen whose duty it was to aim and fire upon fellow citizens, and I fear that some of them must have endure sleepless nights, horrified by what they witnessed, what they did. Even now, my heart is heavy for the lessons learned that day for surely, some witnesses must believe that no place is safe, that speech may not be free after all.

I was again inconsolable on April 19, 1995 when a student told me that she’d seen dark plumes of smoke arising from downtown Oklahoma City as she drove to school, several hours after first-period. She warned everyone in the classroom that whatever had happened was terrible, that the radio station she was listening to reported loud explosions in that area.

Soon we learned that someone had placed a bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. One hundred and sixty-eight were dead, nineteen of them babies and children in a day care on the second floor, just above the truck carrying a 5,000 pound bomb.

I cried with my students, many of whom had parents working in buildings downtown. One young man was the teenaged uncle of the infant featured on the cover of Newsweek--the bloodied babe in the arms of a firefighter.

I cried again when at last we drove downtown, the smell of burned materials still heavy more than two weeks later. Windows that should have reflected the skies above were blind instead, nothing but decay and destruction in view. I still mourn the babies, for the innocence lost, for the sense that ours is a sensible world when, in fact, around corners and even under foot, is chaos.

This blog began with a survivor of chaos, a woman who was a babe in arms after the United States firebombed Japan. The bombing raids were unrelenting, decimating cities and killing whole swaths of Japanese citizens. One of the architects of that subjugation, Robert McNamara, revealed much later, well after Japan’s surrender and even after Vietnam became two nations divided by cardinal directions, that what happened in Japan exemplifies a basic tenet of warfare: proportionality; i.e., the costs of war should be equal to the benefits, and as an old man, he implied that the costs of firebombing Japan were not equal to the benefits. Japan was supposed to come to the table to surrender and did so only after nuclear power wasted Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Thousands died and more suffered, including one infant whose parents had nothing with which to save her. When I met her, she was middle-aged, her air beginning to gray. She asked to speak to the group of which I was a member, American teachers touring as guests of Japan, and of course, we granted permission, attentive and silent as she read the letter she had prepared, a letter of gratitude for America, for Americans, one in particular who had saved her life.

One U. S. soldier, seeing her family’s despair, gave the family his ration of powdered milk and with that milk, the family saved their youngest child. Life emerged from the ash. International differences dissipated. That one man’s gesture built a bridge through time and insured a future for one woman, now humble before representatives, the first she’d had an opportunity to thank. If only she knew the soldier’s name, then surely his country would wish to thank him as well, she said. His family would have been so proud to know that their son saved a life while conquering a nation.

And thus, I see that from inconsolable moments comes inspiration. Atticus Finch inspired his son. Those four young people killed in Ohio, initially vilified, have become icons for peaceable assembly. We continue to stumble and stagger toward that Constitution ideal, faltering recently during the Occupy eruptions in U. S. cities when a campus officer sprayed non-violent, non-threatening college kids with pepper spray. But the fact that we wrestle with causes that inspire passion and outrage is a testament to the very American desire for good governance. That’s inspirational.

Furthermore, the courage of firefighters and grieving parents in Oklahoma City restore my faith in all that thrives. These men and women prove that we are made of such stuff that we can not only endure, but overcome. May we always triumph in the end.