A Kinder World

I was at the water park with my family when my step-mom called to tell me that my grandfather had just passed away. He was 94 years old when he died and had been ailing for some time, so the news didn’t come as a shock to me. There was relief in knowing that he was no longer suffering and was finally at rest.

Pop (as we called him) was always jocund, always smiling, and spent much of his life volunteering his time. Everyone would say that Pop was the nicest man, and he was. By being kind to others, he lived the way we all should—and in doing so, he’d had a happy life. 

In the wake of that news, I thought about my family. I especially thought about my own father who had just lost his dad and wondered what that must feel like. No matter the age, it can’t be easy to be without a parent. And even though I was sad, what I felt most was gratitude. I was grateful that Pop had lived a long and joyous life. And here I was. It was a beautiful day. My children were splashing in the lazy river under a cloudless sky. I watched them playing, and thought about how I would tuck them into bed later that night, kissing their cheeks made pink from the sun.

Just then, a woman on a blue tube floated by me. Tomorrow is never guaranteed was tattooed across her foot.

The day before my grandfather passed, Melania Trump boarded a plane to visit a migrant detention center wearing a coat that told the world that she really doesn’t care. I’ve had a hard time stomaching the political news this summer especially around issues of immigration. There’s been an ache in my heart unlike any I’ve known before, and I found myself unmoored by my emotions.

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{Photo: Andrew Harnik, AP, via TimesUnion}

As I struggled to make sense of it all, I realized that many people in America—myself included—cannot fathom living in a war-torn country or getting sick from a lack of clean water. Many people will never know what it is like to be denied access to doctors and medicine. We take for granted that our children will be afforded an education, that they’ll grow up in a country that is, for the most part, safe. We suffer our first world problems and falsely equate being better off to just being better.

Here in America, we are privileged.

Around the same time my newsfeed was flooded with the tear-stained faces of migrant children, I was reading Strength in What Remains. In it, Tracy Kidder narrates the story of an African boy, Deogratias Niyizonkiza, who barely survives a civil war in his home of Burundi. As his name suggests, with thanks to God, Deo escapes the genocide of his country. Arriving at JFK with two hundred dollars in his pocket, knowing not a single person nor the English language, in a matter of years, he goes from sleeping in Central Park as a homeless man to attending Columbia University as a pre-med student. His tale is remarkable and it is courageous.

The writing depicts gruesome scenes from his homeland that continue to haunt him long after he’s left—a baby crying at his dead mother’s breast; dogs running the dirt roads with severed heads in their mouths; an entire family murdered, the husband’s genitals cut off and shoved in the wife’s mouth. Still, this is no work of fiction. I kept reminding myself of that as I read.

“I know I have these unrealistic beliefs and thoughts, that the world can be peaceful, can be healthy, people can be humane. But is it feasible?”

This is a question that Deo asks as he returns to Burundi after the war to help build medical clinics for his people. This summer, it’s been a question I have struggled with too.

Regardless of one’s political beliefs, regardless of one’s religion, regardless of imaginary lines drawn in the sand—beneath everything, we are first all human.

“That shared humanity, like it or not, doesn’t end at our southern border, nor any border. It’s the same humanity that understands there is a risk in entering another country illegally—possible consequences, some severe and difficult to bear, though none as unbearable as knowing that your child and family are in certain danger …in many cases because a father or mother or child has already been killed,” Oscar Cásares writes in a piece titled, “A child doesn’t cry in Spanish or English. A child simply cries, and we respond.”

Warsan Shire addresses those same risks in her poem “Home.”

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.

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When I return to teaching in August, I will start off the school year reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my classes. Like Atticus, I will ask my students to stand in someone else’s shoes and walk around in them, and while we will finish Harper Lee’s book and move on to other works of literature, I will never stop trying to teach them to have empathy.

We may never come to a consensus on how to fix the problems of our world, but if we could start with our shared humanity, I believe we’d create a kinder world…the kind of world I wish for our children.

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{via Instagram @justinteodoro}

My grandfather cared. With his affection for cardigan sweaters and helping others, he reminded me of Mr. Rogers. He raised three sons and a daughter who each would hold up a torch and welcome a stranger to supper. They’d open their door and invite them in, especially when it seemed they had nothing to offer in return.

When I was younger, I was often surprised to see faces I didn’t recognize at our table come Christmas Eve. I didn’t understand why a person I’d never met was living in a camper on my uncle’s property. When a man who I deemed “crazy” approached my father in public, invading his personal space, I watched as my father looked him in the eyes, shook his hand, and asked him how he was doing with such sincerity that I immediately felt ashamed of the judgement I’d passed on him.

I believe what Pop showed us is that, “first and foremost, we meet as human beings who have much in common: a heart, a face; a voice; the presence of a soul, fears, hope, the ability to trust, the capacity for compassion and understanding, the kinship of being human.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel). It’s what I strive to teach my own children and the children that I teach.

As often happens in the wake of a loss, I regret that I didn’t spend more time with Pop when I had the chance. When I learned that there wasn’t an obituary for him, I desperately wanted to write one, but I realized, sadly, that I didn’t know enough about his life. If only I could sit by his side and ask him questions. If only I could listen to his stories and hold his hand.

Sometimes we need a reminder, like the passing of a great man or a tattoo on a foot, to remember that tomorrow is never guaranteed.

If we want to create a kinder world, we need to begin today.

Maybe I couldn’t write Pop an obituary, but I could write this. Like everything done with a giving heart, I know it would make him happy.

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In Loving Memory

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In Their Own Words

I get a ton of emails at work, many of which get deleted without ever having been opened, but when I received an invitation from Goodreads asking teachers to “Join the Conversation,” something told me I should read on.

Goodreads and Netflix had partnered up to promote the adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir First They Killed My Father, a soon-to-be released Netflix Original directed by Angelina Jolie. They were asking teachers to share the trailer for the film with their students, to open up a dialogue with them, and to submit an essay that captured their student’s thoughts.

Since my classes would be reading To Kill a Mockingbird in the weeks to come, and since genocide is intolerance at its worst, I figured we could use this opportunity as another lens through which to look at discrimination.

The Khmer Rouge took control of the Cambodian government in 1975. I was born in 1978, roughly around the time this genocide came to an end. Only 40 years ago, the mass murder of two million Cambodian people took place while the rest of the world did nothing to stop it. In the twentieth century alone, we have experienced several more genocides: Rwanda, Bosnia, Dafur. Yet in classrooms across America, children are largely ignorant to these suffering. They have all been taught about The Holocaust, but when some of them realized that the more recent genocides took place around the time they were born, they were shocked.

As I shared with my classes some background information and then the trailer for First They Killed My Father, a boy questioned, “Why is this the first time I am hearing about this?”

Yet if we only rewind a few weeks, images of hate flood our screens: the angry faces of Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, the Alt-Right. Their expressions are illuminated by the same tiki torches that shine on my children on warm summer nights as they roast marshmallows for s’mores, their innocent laughter filling the evening sky.

While the riots in Charlottesville have certainly been mentioned in my classroom, there hasn’t been a direct discussion about them. Perhaps it is easier to talk about The Scottsboro Boys as it relates to a work of fiction than it is to look in our own back yards.

So what did my students think after first learning that there was a genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s, and then after watching the atrocities of it viewed through the dark, attentive eyes of a 5-year-old? What follows are their own words, collectively woven to express why it is important to learn from stories of hardship like that of Loung Ung’s.


Nowadays, we are more likely to pay attention to our own first-world problems. This, in turn, leaves third-world countries to basically do whatever they want. That’s why we learn about the Holocaust and not about more recent acts of mass murder. The same goes for mass terror. We’ll never forget 9/11, but we’ll easily forget the war on terrorism happening in Syria.

The Holocaust was one of the most horrendous genocides. When Holocaust survivors saw the white supremacist groups in Virginia carrying the Nazi flag, they were horrified. A dark-skinned reporter who was sent to interview the Ku Klux Klan was threatened to be burned alive on a cross.

Everyone has scars.

Stories like Loung Ung’s allow people to experience their pain, it forces people to remember. Forgetting the victims is probably the worst thing we can do, because if you forget, it’s like their struggles, and even their lives, never existed. At the same time, stories like Luong Ung’s allow us to appreciate our own lives more fully.

Humanity is losing its empathy towards people because society doesn’t want to read a book. These stories are what teach us to be empathetic. The main thing pushing us to read and learn about the history of our country and the world are our teachers.

Learning about genocide educates us on humanity—and it proves what some people are willing to do out of fear and blind hatred. But just because we learn about the past does not mean that we will prevent it from happening again. People have the power to be cruel, and some will—unfortunately—take that opportunity.

We need to realize that our world today isn’t perfect, it isn’t always a nice, beautiful place. Today, people are still vying for power. Today, people are still unkind. Today, our country is still fighting the same battles we fought in the past.

If it is true that history repeats itself, then we must be prepared for when it does by looking at how we could have prevented previous tragedies.

It is always possible for some dictator to reign over the innocent. If enough people with the same beliefs got together today, and they had the proper resources, they could control anyone; we can’t let awful, horrific ideas pollute the minds of others. With biological and chemical warfare, another genocide could occur tomorrow. Mass murder could come at the click of a button.

There will always be evil people in the world who believe that the only way to remedy a situation is to completely start over. Genocides happens for many reasons, and none of them are good. None of the people who start them are good either. And the villains who lead these events don’t disappear as history moves on.

We should have learned to not let a horrific person rule, but it is 2017 and we are letting history slowly repeat itself. If power is in the wrong person’s hands, then the most unimaginable things can happen; unjust and corrupt government leads to destruction. All it takes is a careless leader and hatred for the human race.

Racism, political beliefs, and religion all divide us. We need to accept people for who they are and not make judgements. The world demands that we learn from past mistakes so we don’t fall further into a hole of corruption, greed, and abused power. As a country, we need to stand up for unjust acts.

The most important lessons to learn are how to treat people, how to stay courageous, how to stand together and protect others against torture and discrimination.

When we learn about the past, we are forced to think about what kind of future we want to have. We can learn to become better people and to bring different countries together peacefully.

Everyone is making history right now.


Whether discussing the Luong Ung’s of yesterday or The Dreamers of tomorrow, the words of my students emphasize the importance of having courage in the face of adversity. With kindness and empathy, there is hope for a better tomorrow.

 

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