Say their names as you scramble your eggs, as you walk to grab your coffee, as you start your work day. Say their names when you hug your mom or your son or your neighbor or your uncle. Say their names as you end your day in bed with your partner. Say their name when you start your car or brush your teeth. When you say your prayers say their names. When you preach. When you teach. When you dance. Or cry. Or talk to your grandmother. Or the cop who pulls you over. Just keep saying their names until this ends and even then chant them out loud. Burn your incense, light your candles, and say their names.
As we let those names linger in our air, let us also remember that, “Since Jan. 1, 2015, 1,252 black people have been shot and killed by police, according to The Washington Post’s database tracking police shootings; that doesn’t even include those who died in police custody or were killed using other methods” (A Decade of Watching Black People Die).
As I embark on a Shakespeare unit with my students, nine graders reading Romeo & Juliet and AP Lit reading Hamlet, we start with questions. Questions Elizabethan thinkers might have pondered in 1598; questions we still ponder in 2018. I am struck with our timeless preoccupation over destiny: Are we the masters of our own fate? I ask students to think and write about their beliefs on this topic. Certainly, these teens, like those penned by Shakespeare, want to believe they are, indeed, in control of their outcomes, while I, I who have screamed up at the Heavens in distress, frustrated by the unpredictability of chance, those ‘why me’ moments; “O, I am Fortune’s fool” situations. As if we are pulled by strings invisible to our own hands. Just when we want/need/hope for a different outcome we must settle for what is… but as I look across the classroom at my students, into their hopeful eyes, their exuberant optimism, I see their uniform belief that yes, they are masters of their fate. They aren’t phased by headlines or politicians’ lies; they see their own trajectory as it slants up and beyond, straight into the starry night. Straight into heaven.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn secretly wrote One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich during the Cold War, and now, decades later, during this unforgiving winter, I am warmed by the sense of dignity and hope he instills in his gulag–bound characters. Not to diminish the suffering of the 5,000,000 prisoners who endured cruelty and hardships under Stalin’s rule, but I too am feeling the burdens of this winter season. Crushing cold, violent storms, grey upon white, and a stretch of days ahead that screech more of the same. Survive? Well yes, I will, but I will certainly steal from the wisdom of Solzhenitsyn to make it through. After all, with day after day of sub-zero weather this winter, we can all feel Siberia in our very bones, right? And we need his words more than ever…
Thankfully my survival depends on my own constructs, and is not predicated on outsmarting corrupt guards in a work camp. I find small promises where I can, like sipping my Sunday morning tea in bed. Hot and black with frothed milk. And yes, snuggled under a down comforter. The raw day can wait…