The following is taken out of context from a chapter taken out of a larger context from my book, which represents a piece of a life that I still don’t really understand. But whatever, it seems relevant right now.
When I was teaching in Northern California, I was driving to a beach to take a swim at around five thirty one morning in early fall, when the street was blocked off due to a fire. I had to turn around and head back because there was no way to get around it. As I did this, I turned on the radio and heard the news: in New York City, the sky was falling. I came home and turned on the television and saw buildings I had just seen for the first time a couple years ago falling to the ground. I went to school and discussed it with the students, listening to their questions and theories, but I had little to contribute. As time went on, we were told that it had been a plot hatched by Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and members of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
This was interesting because the high school I taught at had a fairly sizable Afghan population. These kids were immigrants or children of immigrants who were great students and behaved well in school. They dressed nicer than most of the other kids and spoke more languages. They generally spoke Farsi, Pashto, and English while studying at least one language in high school such as French or Spanish. Both the boys and the girls did well in my math classes, had almost perfect attendance, and were extremely respectful to their teachers. After 9/11 and the subsequent wave of intense nationalism and xenophobia that swept the country, these kids got the hint. They were no longer welcome.
The girls in this group buckled down and continued to shine as students. At the same time, they became more visibly Muslim. Girls who formerly did not wear the hijab began doing so, and they started an Afghan club at school. They also engaged in more dialogue about what it meant for them to be American. They were determined to show everyone that they could be good American citizens who loved their country while also being devout Muslims. I consider myself very lucky to have gotten to know them. Teenagers can often be very open with their struggles, and talking to these students who were already better educated, more thoughtful, and more understanding of diverse cultural backgrounds than most adults I had ever met was definitely one of those times when I learned more from the student than the other way around.
Their brothers, on the other hand, disappeared. They rarely came to class, seemed angry and sullen when they did come, and changed the way they dressed in a way that made them blend in more with other ethnic minorities on campus. Boys who had once been budding leaders and brilliant students with unbounded charm and charisma became instantly disillusioned, hardened, lost. I watched them unravel throughout the school year and make themselves insignificant. They didn’t cause problems, but they stopped creating and hoping. A black hole opened up, a devastating singularity that obliterated a once vibrant hunger for learning.
Thanks a whole hell of a lot, America. I mean, it’s what we do, isn’t it? You want to know why I’m an anarchist? Maybe you don’t, but I assume I have the floor to tell you about it because this is, after all, my book, and you haven’t quit reading it yet.
One of the reasons I have devolved into an anarchist is the way government so neatly packages and propagandizes our innate tendencies toward tribalism and tells us who we are allowed to hate. I’m just old enough to remember that it was patriotic to hate communists and even Russians and Chinese. Now it was terrorists, and in particular, Muslim terrorists. But what group is allowed to do all the hating?
I myself, and this may surprise you, have descended from a long line of immigrants. I have done some research, mainly Wikipedia, and it turns out that many other Americans have as well. I came from British, French Canadian, and Irish. In fact, I am told that I am a direct descendant of James Brewer, a member of a group of anarchists and terrorists who intercepted a ship from a company in their own country and then threw all the capitalist merchandise into the ocean. They did it. People died. And the rest is history. There was an anarchist revolution, the anarchists won, and one of England’s penal colonies populated by its indentured servants and philosophical rejects was able to call itself a sovereign nation.
So who is the enemy? How far back do we go? To me, it seems like peeling an onion. You start with the Muslim layer, peel it off to find the commies, the Koreans, the Nazis, and so on, until you get to the middle of the onion and all you are left with are empty promises of freedom and trails of tears.
I couldn’t help those kids. Their sisters would ask me to talk with them and they wouldn’t talk. Their parents were worried but didn’t seem to know what to do either. I think of it as a failure that we all didn’t try harder and it haunts me still. What they were going through, what we were all going through was, as usual, bigger than me. I wasn’t the point and never am. I muddled through that year and decided that I wanted to get to the heart of the problem and go to ground zero, so my wife and I packed up and moved to New York. Nothing in teaching happens intentionally. People who go into it wanting control and order find themselves pulled out to a sea of years of students that sucks them into the profundity of a life-crushing abyss. Teaching is a day at the beach, and you are caught in the undertow.