Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was not one of my students, but he was someone I would have happily snagged for my classroom. He was in the half of seventh and eighth grade that I didn’t teach and a friend of my advisees. He was soft spoken and polite, and I had a lot of hellions. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching hellions. That’s why I gravitated toward middle school in the first place. But sometimes you want a break, and Dzhokhar seemed like an easygoing kid. By all accounts, he stayed easygoing, even after he set the bombs.
During the Boston Marathon bombing trial, every time I saw a sketch of Dzhokhar in the courtroom dressed in prison orange, I flashed back ten years to when he was in middle school and we were teaching Monster by Walter Dean Myers. It’s a young adult novel that’s written as a screenplay by Steve Harmon, a fictional teenager on trial for felony murder. The script is a journal for Harmon, but his lawyer advises him not to write about what happened on the day an attempted burglary led to a shooting death in case his journal is entered into evidence. Harmon can’t profess his innocence or guilt, so he writes about the trial, his life in prison, his film class back at school, his little brother, and death row as he imagines it.
The prosecutor describes Harmon as a monster who deserves the death penalty. Dzhokhar’s trial felt like déjà vu.
In 2005, when our small, Cambridge charter school first opened its doors, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. My partner Humanities teacher and I immediately postponed our planned summer reading unit because what was happening in our country trumped curriculum. We addressed issues of race and poverty, looting and violence, and rescue efforts and international aid with our respective sections.
I believed as teachers we could make a positive difference in how our students engaged the world.
Over the course of the year, we read Elie Wiesel’s Night and Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror. We watched To Kill A Mockingbird. We read Shakespeare. We constantly asked our students to analyze judgments and motivations: What intrinsic rights do we have as human beings? How do we ensure that no one infringes on these rights, regardless of personal beliefs? What happens when we turn people into Others and stop recognizing their humanity? Do we become monsters?
We acted out scenes from Monster in class and studied the U.S. criminal justice system. The students wrote their first papers using textual evidence to argue whether they believed Harmon was guilty or innocent. Was Harmon a monster, as the prosecutor claimed?
“Most people in our community are decent, hardworking citizens who pursue their own interests legally and without infringing on the rights of others. But there are also monsters in our communities — people who are willing to steal and to kill, people who disregard the rights of others.”
— Sandra Petrocelli, prosecutor in Monster
We read about accused criminals who were labeled monsters by the state and of their disposal. Frances Newton was convicted of killing her family and became the first black woman executed by the state of Texas since the Civil War. She claimed innocence. The victims’ family requested life in prison, and new evidence cast doubt on her conviction. A new trial can never be held, leaving the family in limbo. We debated whether capital punishment should ever be considered for a juvenile, as in the case of John Malvo, the 17 year old Beltway sniper.
Dzhokhar’s case, with his verdict of guilt across 30 charges ending in a death sentence, would have fit our class discussions perfectly.
Students participated in “Forced Choice Walks.” They were given statements related to these current events and asked to walk to a corner of the room depending on whether they Strongly Agreed, Agreed, Disagreed, or Strongly Disagreed. Once they made their choices, they debated their reasoning, and we let them move to new corners if their classmates’ arguments persuaded them.
During our unit on Monster, the statements we gave our sections included:
- Admitted criminals deserve the most possible jail time.
- Plea bargaining robs the accused of justice.
- The death penalty is necessary in the United States.
We were trying to teach our students to think through gray areas. To distinguish right from wrong. To enter into the experiences of others. To have empathy. To understand their connections to each other, to their communities, and to the world.
But some areas aren’t gray. Killing another human being, robbing an individual of personhood and the most basic right to life, is a monstrous act, whether committed by a person or a state.
Personal beliefs do not trump human rights. This is how we create and live together in a civil society.
When teaching the book, I never imagined that one of our students could ever be in a comparable situation. In trouble, sure.
But not for murder. Not for terrorism.
How could he do it? How could that quiet boy with a big smile become a young man who decided to terrorize the people of his city, killing some, hurting many, and forever tainting one of Boston’s most joyful days?
Two years later, I still can’t reconcile it.
As a teacher, as an adult who encountered him as he was growing up, I feel as though we failed. We taught him civics, after all. We taught Humanities. He did not see the people surrounding him as individuals living out their stories, attending or running the Marathon for myriad reasons, before shattering their lives. He saw them as some amorphous Other. In doing so, he became Boston’s Monster, stripped of everything but this act.
We taught him Humanities, and somehow, at least for one crucial moment, he lost his humanity.
Saying anything positive about a terrorist is impossible. You’re a sympathizer. You’re Hitler. You wanted people to die. You’re as repulsive as the person who committed the crime. How could you? But we aren’t born monsters. Dzhokhar is still all of the moments leading up to that monstrous one and many moments afterward. He’s a young man who destroyed lives. He’s a young man who lost his brother. He’s a young man who was once a child who went to school and was surrounded by people who cared. He’s a young man who used and betrayed his friends. He’s a young man who fell through the cracks. He’s a young man who is sentenced to death.
Humanity and inhumanity are actions. They are choices we make daily in our treatment of others and in how we respond to the way we are treated. In the jury’s forced choice, everyone walked to the same corner, and they have no option of changing their minds.
Calling Dzhokhar a monster dehumanizes him and is the only way to justify killing him. If he is not a person, we are not depriving him of personhood.
As adults in his life, we failed to show Dzhokhar that human life is precious. In sentencing him to death, we become monsters ourselves.