In February 2010, I was invited to be a guest artist at my beloved alma mater, Cambridge Rindge & Latin School. It was Black History Month. The Diversity Programs Coordinator scheduled me to perform two 45-minute sets for Periods 2 and 4. Hundreds of students poured into a newly renovated library auditorium to hear my poems and stories about “the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality and culture.” In many ways, CRLS embodied that intersection. I remember looking out at the student body and remarking, “It’s good to see you again. I graduated in 1998 but you look exactly the same!” The teenagers giggled, knowingly. Rindge remains one of the most socioeconomically diverse high schools in the United States. In 2010, the boy called Suspect 2 was a junior. Did he catch my show? Did he applaud my words about peaceful coexistence and compassion?
Like him and many Rindge alum, I am an immigrant. I moved from Haiti to the U.S. in 1983. My family moved from Dorchester to Cambridge in 1988. I grew up broke, in a strict household that was alternately affectionate and hostile. As a young person, I knew my greatest privilege was being a resident of what we proudly nicknamed "The People's Republic of Cantabridgia." For me, school was a safe haven. Everyday in the hallways, I greeted Joanne from the Dominican Republic, Malik from West Philly, Chara from Liberia, Semhar from Eritrea, Desiree from Trinidad, Mario from Greece, Chris from Cape Verde, Kubhear from Malaysia—and I could go on. Aminah was Indian but adopted by white parents. Our school was full of multiracial, hyphenated, new and layered Americans.
We were each other’s cultural ambassadors. We were Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, polytheistic and agnostic. We were hip-hop, folk, jazz, punk, grunge and pop. We built deep friendships and made first love across ethnic lines.
We offended each other, too. Told each other off. Debated with a mix of newly acquired SAT vocabulary and fad slang. We asked corny-ass, politically incorrect questions. We humored each other. We scoffed at the word tolerance, aiming, instead, for acceptance—celebration, even. We learned how to curse in each other's first languages. And, after school, “underneath the overpass,” we flirted with kids our grandparents might not have approved of—kids who looked, dressed and ate nothing like us.
Our sweaty prom photos are so frickin' hip, y’all.
Our crowded class portraits reflect the America Obama's always talking about.
In Cambridge, borders seemed simply technical. King’s dream seemed attainable. Rindge wasn’t perfect but it was where I learned the word feminism, the phrase social justice, the initialism LGBT. It's where my teachers, peers and community leaders came out to me in school-wide assemblies. It’s where the school motto is "opportunity, diversity, respect."
You saw all those flags waving in the explosion footage at the Boston Marathon finish line? I saw dozens of flags every single day at school. They were huge above our heads, on permanent display in our gymnasium, a constant reminder that the "Falcons" represented 80 different nations. I think of people from all over the world when I think of my hometown.
The boy called Suspect 2 lived five blocks from my old address. Much is being made about this alleged bomber’s birthplace and religion but I can’t shake it: he was a kid from Cambridge. He looks like so many kids from Cambridge. The criminal with the gun, the explosives, the cryptic tweets—the fugitive bleeding in the boat—he shows up in hip prom photos, too.
I met a lot of students after my 2010 performances at Rindge. Did I smile at Johar? Did he shake my hand? When and how did he become the Dzhokhar we’re reading about in the news? What did growing up in Cambridge, MA mean to him?