On overcoming tragedy, then and now

Joe Nathan
Education Columnist

We’ll come back, sadder but stronger. That’s what I’ve predicted in talking with youngsters about the second Boston Massacre – the one that just happened. Acts of horror often have the reverse impact of what was intended by those who produced them. No one should defend any of these horrible acts, committed by cowards. They are terrible tragedies.

But look what happened after the first Boston Massacre, in March 1770. According to Wikipedia, “British army solderes killed five civilians and injured six others.” People throughout New England were infuriated.  This helped bring the colonies together, eventually resulting in our freedom from England.

We found a Civil War with huge losses on both sides. But one result was the end of slavery. As Lincoln told us at Gettysburg, “These dead have not died in vain.”

Not quite 50 years ago, in September 1963, a Birmingham, Ala. church was bombed. Four innocent little girls died, and many were injured. Horrible! But this helped unify millions of Americans to support civil rights legislation. Again quoting Wikipedia, “The explosion at the African-American church which killed four girls, marked a turning point in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and contributed to support for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

American history is not just names and dates. It’s also about the successful struggle to expand opportunities and freedom. Sometimes it’s been difficult.  Sometimes we’ve had to deal with tragedy.

But we have moved ahead. The remarkable American poet Langston Hughes reminded us of the American spirit in “Mother to Son.” In it, the mother tells her son and the reader that she’s “still climbin” though her life has been, “no crystal stair.”

Finally, there’s the wonderful Carl Sandburg book length poem, “The People Yes.” Written during the Depression, Sandburg points out, “The people yes. The people will live on…In the darkness with a great bundle of grief the people march. In the night and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people march. ‘Where to, what next.’”

Hughes and Sandburg are right about Americans.  Life is not always “a crystal stair.” But we’ll keep marching on.

Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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