Many are immigrants, from more than ninety-five countries. The languages spoken in the class that wrote these poems include Creole, Spanish, Portuguese (one via Brazil, one via Angola), French and Swahili. The site of Bunker Hill CC, where Charlestown prison once stood, has good progressive credentials. This is where Sacco and Vanzetti were jailed and executed. The prison library was where Malcolm X went to read. The film Good Will Hunting was set here.
This summer I was tracking down a student whose family has been lost in the civil war in Mali. After I wrote a column about hunger on college campuses, Bunker Hill hosted its fourth food bank in three months, an eighteen-wheeler filled by the Greater Boston Food Bank. The food was gone in ninety minutes. Amid all this, two students from here will study at MIT this fall.
As these poems show, Bunker Hill students have plenty of intellect. The best are as bright as any I have encountered in my platinum-spoon life. What's missing for the students here is seat time to master intellectual and academic skills. They have not read the Western canon by the time they are 18. They have not already written half a dozen research papers in MLA style when they arrive in my class. But they are able to understand the books and write such papers when shown the way.
As with any class, sometimes nothing works. I pulled out Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing" as a last resort one day and asked the students to write their own versions, saying only that they may choose a verb other than "singing." The results the first time astonished me. They still do. My hope is that we can encourage teachers everywhere to steal this assignment and flood the US Capitol with the results. Our hope for America is that whatever crimes we may commit, voices like these will keep bubbling up and send the country soaring.
I Hear America Crying by Chantal Midgette
I hear America crying; the varied sounds I hear;
The young teenager ends her dreams because a newborn child interferes
The widow, mother of four who lost her husband in a war
The woman being abused at home, praying to live life no more
The bullied child at school who is in pain
The Afghan family hoping they'll be accepted again
The black man on death row for killing his own kind
Too late to turn back time, a brown leather cowl will make him blind
The white man judged as a racist for protecting himself from a black gunman
Sad to see that people doesn't care that he's a veteran
Crying, with tears, falling down to their ears, the sounds I hear
I Hear America's Prayers by Fellipe de Moraes
I hear America's prayers, the beautiful vocals I hear
The mother's night prayer for her son to make it home safe
The mechanic's prayer for his back to heal to work
The child's prayer for his animal companion to not die,
The college student's prayer for courage to ask a girl out on a date,
The diplomat's prayer to stop Taliban violence in the Middle East,
Prayers by all, and welcomed by God—their beautiful vocal voices I hear
I See America Changing by Neehmias Afonso
I see America changing, from the very path that got us here.
Rich becoming richer, not wanting to be brethren.
Kids becoming closed-minded, as nonsense is being fed to their brains.
People dying, because a single smile doesn't hold a meaning anymore.
Parents crying, wondering what ever happened to their pride and joy.
Neighbors shutting out, as if they weren't people themselves.
I see America deteriorating, from the very morals it stood on.
I Don't Hear America Singing by Joe Saia
I don't hear America singing, I hear shooting and killing.
The killings of American soldiers off duty.
The shooting going on in front of little Lucy as she sits on her porch crying.
The father not coming home, who had been gunned down on Roxbury Ave.
The mother crying over her son's body, dead for no good reason.
The kid carrying a gun, so he can feel safe walking down the street.
I can even see a toddler pretending to kill, as he sees his father prepare to shoot.
Quick, precise, fast, consistent, easy trigger movements, all to get that bullet out of the gun.
America is shooting and getting the killings over with.
I See the Youth Working by Arlyn Gonzales
I see elementary schools working; the various tasks I see,
Those of kindergartners—each one learning their ABCs and 123s;
The first graders work, as they develop their basic sentences and math abilities;
The second graders task, as they prepare for multiplication, or reading stories;
The third graders, as they're introduced to history—and novels afoot;
The fourth graders working on experiments, as well as the MCAS;
The fifth graders' job—brainstorming, with ideas through a computer, or presentations they prepared,
The scuffing paperwork of the teachers—or the pans of the cafeteria crew—or of the custodians cleaning
after the studious youth—each working towards their respective goals;
Working, with great responsibility, the future of the next generation
* * *
"And then 15 minutes later, a tragedy happens."
McCarthy, whose husband died and son was critically wounded, is by now a practiced hand at speaking out when a deranged man with a lot of firepower runs amok. But the slaughter of 20 small children and seven adults in Connecticut left her choked up and speechless.
"I just don't know what this country's coming to. I don't know who we are any more," she said.
President Obama was overwhelmed as well, when he attempted to comfort the nation. It was his third such address in the wake of a soul-wrenching mass shooting. "They had their entire lives ahead of them," he said, and he had trouble saying anything more.
It was, of course, a tragedy. Yet tragedies happen all the time. Terrible storms strike. Cars crash. Random violence occurs. As long as we're human, we'll never be invulnerable.
But when a gunman takes out kindergartners in a bucolic Connecticut suburb, three days after a gunman shot up a mall in Oregon, in the same year as fatal mass shootings in Minneapolis, in Tulsa, in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, in a theater in Colorado, a coffee bar in Seattle and a college in California — then we're doing this to ourselves.
We know the story. The shooter is a man, usually a young man, often with a history of mental illness. Sometimes in a rage over a lost job, sometimes just completely unhinged. In the wake of the Newtown shootings, the air was full of experts discussing the importance of psychological counseling. "We need to look at what drives a crazy person to do these kind of actions," said Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, one of the highest-ranking Republicans in the House.
Every country has a sizable contingent of mentally ill citizens. We're the one that gives them the technological power to play god.
This is all about guns — access to guns and the ever-increasing firepower of guns. Over the past few years we've seen one shooting after another in which the killer was wielding weapons holding 30, 50, 100 bullets. I'm tired of hearing fellow citizens argue that you need that kind of firepower because it's a pain to reload when you're shooting clay pigeons. Or that the founding fathers specifically wanted to make sure Americans retained their right to carry rifles capable of mowing down dozens of people in a couple of minutes.
Recently the Michigan House of Representatives passed and sent to the governor a bill that, among other things, makes it easy for people to carry concealed weapons in schools. After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday, a spokesman for House Speaker Jase Bolger said that it might have meant "the difference between life and death for many innocent bystanders." This is a popular theory of civic self-defense that discounts endless evidence that in a sudden crisis, civilians with guns either fail to respond or respond by firing at the wrong target.
It was perhaps the second-most awful remark on one of the worst days in American history, coming up behind Mike Huckabee's asking that since prayer is banned from public schools, "should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?"
We will undoubtedly have arguments about whether tougher regulation on gun sales or extra bullet capacity would have made a difference in Connecticut. In a way it doesn't matter. America needs to tackle gun violence because we need to redefine who we are. We have come to regard ourselves — and the world has come to regard us — as a country that's so gun happy that the right to traffic freely in the most obscene quantities of weapons is regarded as far more precious than an American's right to health care or a good education.
We have to make ourselves better. Otherwise, the story from Connecticut is too unspeakable to bear.
Nearly two years ago, after Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head in a mass shooting in Arizona, the White House sent up signals that Obama was preparing to do something. "I wouldn't rule out that at some point the president talks about the issues surrounding gun violence," said his press secretary at the time, Robert Gibbs.
On Friday, the president said: "We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."
Time passes. And here we are.
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