Not Enough Words
I am struggling to express myself on paper for the first time in recent memory. Words, which generally flow so smoothly from my fingers, refuse to emerge. My community has been rocked by violence in its most abhorrent form. Unspeakably evil, even conceptually, a man was murdered on Tuesday night, after answering the front door of his own house, by another man with a rifle and a heart bent on destruction.
Jamal Andrews was thirty years old, with a partner and an infant son, engaged in a life which included music and friends. Jamal was a former classmate of my sons, a former student of mine, a friend and a brother. Jamal is also black. I almost wrote that Jamal was black, but the fact remains, he is black and will always be black, no matter what happens to the vessel in which he lived his life.
In all of the time I knew him, I do not believe that thought ever crossed my conscious mind, the fact that Jamal had skin that was a different hue than those around him, first up on our mountain, in our two-room school-house, and then down in town, at the local public school. I just am not programmed to note details that have no bearing on day-to-day activities. Our community is small, very close, very responsive to those in need or those who are hurting, and very welcoming of diversity. This IS California.
However, though details are still very unsettled, there appears to be little doubt that the slaying was racially motivated. The assailant was a neighbor, with whom Jamal had little contact, and no established relationship. There is talk about Jamal having returned a dog to this neighbor at some earlier point that fatal day, but little is known beyond that. Jamal’s partner had come to the door, after he had opened it, in time to see the assailant raise the rifle and fire at least two rounds, one striking Jamal in the head, and ultimately killing him, and one hitting him in the shoulder. He died in front of the house, as his partner watched.
And something died within the heart of our community. Some essence that we thought was a given in our world, proved to be as ephemeral as Jamal’s smile: here in one instant, and forever gone the next. Our belief, that somehow we had escaped the reality of a culture in which skin color ultimately had any other effect, than to highlight individualism, has been shattered. We might have believed that our community was above such behavior, because we have had little reason to fear, up until this point.
I was thirty when my oldest son was born; he will turn thirty this fall. Jamal was thirty when his life ended so abruptly. Thirty years of age is the prime of life. The last time I saw Jamal was at Vidal’s memorial, and he was there with his partner, who was on the verge of bringing their son into the world. He was vibrant and happy, joy radiating out of every pore of his features, and he greeted me enthusiastically. He greeted me as an equal, not in terms of skin color-that was never in dispute-but as a man who was about to share in one of the most cherished of human dreams, bringing a tiny representation of himself into the world.
After reflecting on the reason for being there, we exchanged pleasantries, as he basked in the glow of the awareness that he was about to become a father, a dad, and how much he was looking forward to it. I cherish this encounter and hold it close to heart, at this most melancholy of times.
What am I supposed to say to Lucy, Jamal’s mom, as I try to find some way to explain how this could have happened to her son? As a teacher who taught language arts, social studies, some Spanish, some drama, and a lot of other subjects in a rural middle school, I also taught a lot of things about life. With the rest of our staff, I taught about diversity and reverence, and respect for all things living.
I did this through dialogue with students, by listening to them, and by asking them to listen to one another. I saw students talking to Jamal; I saw them listening to him. I witnessed an exchange of ideas and culture, that I saw as healthy and productive. I did not think I had to fear the unthinkable. There are not enough words to describe how inadequate all of that teaching was, at this most dismal of times.
Ironically, I learned what happened while standing in a grocery checkout line, down in Willits, while two men discussed in low tones what had occurred. The first had asked the second man if he had heard about “Jamal.” As I could not avoid the conversation, I felt the most sickening feeling descend over me as I fought to believe that there must be more than one Jamal in Mendocino County. Later I was to find out that there was only one Jamal who mattered, and he was the victim of a heinous act.
Even with the atrocities committed on 911, there is a minute sense of relief, that many, if not most, at least had no knowledge that there was treachery involved. Jamal came face to face with his attacker, and must have known that there is no other word for what was happening. What was happening was unreal, it was unjust, and it was so infinitely final.
Now we are left to make some sense out it all. It will take a better person than I, to make this sense, or to express it appropriately on paper. I am too shattered to believe that I am the one to accomplish this. Someone who can better explain what could have been done, to change the course of this event, is the person you are looking for.
All I feel I can even remotely do to cope with this brutal occurrence, is to double my efforts to instill in those around me, my belief that violence in all forms is reprehensible, and that life is to be revered. I will strive to increase awareness of those around me, to appreciate the value and worth of every person, with whom you come into contact.
I will strive to educate those around me that if everyone worked harder to accomplish these goals, that we might prevent this kind of senseless tragedy from occurring again. My words sound empty, full of promise and determination, but woefully inadequate to take any degree of pain away from Lucy, or from any of us. That’s not going to happen, not today, not ever.
But if everyone worked to remove violence as an acceptable alternative, and everyone taught values emphasizing respect and reverence for all life, then maybe it can make a difference, and maybe we can be spared a repetition of this insidious evil. It’s the only thing I have, besides memories, both of Jamal, and of a kinder, gentler community, to get me through this struggle.