Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Was My Student

by Joan S
Originally Published: 

When I walked into the lobby of my building and headed toward my mailbox, my across-the-hall neighbor greeted me. “Your student got the death penalty,” he said.

For a few seconds, I couldn’t talk or move. My eyes filled up with tears that I was almost certain my neighbor wouldn’t understand because I wasn’t sure that I understood them myself. Finally, as we walked toward our apartments, we had one of those awkward conversations in which I managed to say that I hadn’t wanted Dzhokhar to get the death penalty, though I believed he deserved a severe punishment for his atrocious deeds.

Over the last weeks, I’ve been horrified by the prospect of either of Dzhokhar’s possible punishments, and sometimes I’ve wondered if life imprisonment was actually worse than death. My mind kept swarming back to Oedipus Rex, when the distraught Oedipus hungers for his own death and is reminded that by his own decree, his punishment must be exile. To be put outside and apart, to live with the knowledge of his own sinful deeds is more burdensome to Oedipus than death itself.

But if Dzhokhar was feeling shame, sorrow, and regret during the trial, he didn’t let on.

Upstairs in my living room, I turned on the television and began listening to the commentators, prosecutors, and others speaking into microphones. As various speakers discussed the specific counts for which the jury had sentenced Dzhokhar to death, I appreciated the apparent care with which they had deliberated. They had attached the death sentence only to those behaviors and outcomes for which they believed that Dzhokhar, and only Dzhokhar, was completely responsible: the decision to place and detonate the bomb behind a row of finish line spectators that included children, and the resultant deaths of Martin Richard and Lingzi Lu.

Separated from his brother on Boylston Street, Dzhokhar might have changed his mind about going through with the plan to which they had both agreed. But he didn’t.

Around 4:30, when I realized that I understood and accepted the jury’s decision, I began weeping–I think because I could understand and could accept their decision. I wondered how a very dear friend of mine was doing. Her son and daughter-in-law survived the bombing, but had lost legs, endured countless surgeries, and are still very much in the process of adjusting to the new realities of their lives. No member of their family favors the death penalty for anyone. I walked over to my computer and sent her an e-mail: “Thinking of you, thinking of what is that didn’t need to be, and knowing your family and all the rest of us will move forward from this, though there’s much to feel and think about.”

Around 5:00, I realized that the sentence had been announced at 3:00, after the school day was over for my Cambridge Rindge and Latin School colleagues, and I breathed a sigh of relief that none of them were needing to process this news while leading their Period 4 classes. Like me, many of them had never known either of the brothers personally; but some of them had known and/or taught one or both of the brothers, and some of them had been subpoenaed. Frankly, this trial was happening to all of us affiliated with Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS), despite our varying distances from the Tsarnaev brothers: they were/are our CRLS kids, and we are/were their CRLS teachers.

That last point is part of what explains the intense emotion–and now, the profound sadness–that surrounds this case for so many of us. It also explains why I keep referring to the Tamerlan and Dzhokhar by their first names only. Timothy McVeigh is always “Timothy McVeigh” or “McVeigh” when I refer to him, but I always refer to students by their first names. Furthermore, whenever I look at my students who are all grown up, even when they’re busy keeping an eye on their own children as they talk to me, I can’t help but remember the teenage versions of those competent adults standing before me.

So when do kids stop being kids? Articles get written about the American ambiguous answer to that question all the time. I’ve had to remind myself that Dzhokhar is a grown man, even if he’s a very young grown man, because my tendency is to view him as a kid, and on some level to feel terrible that he got himself into this heinous, deadly mess. But if he’s not the problem, who or what is? More than one of my colleagues has lamented the number of bad cards he was dealt in the game of life. But at every moment when my heart went out to him over one or another of those cards, it went out even more to his victims. Bad cards aren’t fair, bad cards generate all kinds of consequences and problems for those holding them and often for those around them, but they can’t justify murderous behavior.

But that’s where the school problem arises again. Public high schools, especially public schools that serve students who are economically disadvantaged, often have more than their share of students who’ve been dealt somewhat bad hands.

So how should, and how much can, we as their teachers respond to that? Even if our goal and our hope is to be responsive and constructive, we don’t always have the chance to be: by the time our students are sixteen or seventeen, they’re very good at playing their cards close to the vest, if that’s their choice. In my own experience, I’ve known many kids who, in their ambivalence about wanting to be known or to be helped, sometimes flashed and hid, flashed and hid their cards a number of time before ultimately deciding to reveal or conceal.

There are those kids who leave their cards at the door when they enter the school building at the beginning of the day. School becomes the one place they can put those cards aside for a while and be someone else, take some time off from the struggle. Despite the energy and promise we see in school, those cards are often playing a larger, more compelling role in shaping the narratives of their lives than we understand.

Meanwhile, when kids do share their difficult cards with us, sometimes the most we can do is provide a place for them to talk and help them to focus on the kinds of choices they can make that will prevent those cards from unduly shaping their future lives.

This is all my way of saying that we are not responsible for what we can’t see, can’t know, and can’t swoop in and change. We are not responsible for what Dzhokhar did, even if we wish that one of us, or all of us, might have said or done something that might have counteracted the other influences in his life: what if there was something we could have known while Dzhokhar was still enrolled at CRLS? And what if one of us had managed to engage with him around it?

It’s a “what if” moment for us — because what we really wish is that the events of April 15, 2013 had never happened at all. And that makes us resolve to be better, even if we’re not guilty. We’re reminded of what we already know as educators. That we must pay attention to our students’ lives, not just to their achievement. That we must conscientiously work toward having all, or most, of our students authentically experience themselves as part of the “we” to which we so optimistically refer when we articulate our aspirations for them and our school community as a whole. That we must respond, not look away, when our students self-marginalize, self-medicate, self-aggrandize, and hint at beginning to self-destruct, even when the forces driving their behavior originate beyond the walls of our schools.

And yet we know that even if we succeed at enacting all of the above, we can’t guarantee a safe world for our students or those around them. It’s just not all up to us. So we move forward hoping that our efforts will have some positive effect on our students and their choices. And understanding that our sadness arises and persists because we are part of the same “we” to which Dzhokhar still belongs.

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