Boston Strong

Call me Miss Superlucky.  My best friend from high school, who is a super intellectual property lawyer in Boston, invited Christopher and me to visit her this summer in beautiful Brookline, Massachusetts, a stone’s throw from Boston, one of my favorite cities in the world.  Cindy and I were not only classmates, but great friends and debate partners at Klein Forest High School, and so it is completely unsurprising to me that she became the kind of lawyer that you would want to have if you needed one.  Her husband, Dave, ran the Boston marathon this year, as he does every year, and was safely home when the bombings started.   It was an excruciating time for the city, and yet since I have been here, I feel completely and utterly safe.  Bostonians have been unfailingly polite and helpful, and Christopher and I agree that Boston has the kind of fortitude that is a comfort.  They really are “Boston Strong,” and we see shirts everywhere we go reminding us of this undeniable fact.

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The Old State House

When you consider the history of Boston, which is really the history of America, you cannot help but catch a serious case of patriotism.   Christopher, who is almost 12, in the midst of his own personal revolution from childhood to adolescence, could hardly contain his excitement as we boarded our direct flight from Houston to Boston on July 11th.  This in itself is a miraculous example of freedom to me:  that we can get on a plane and be in Boston in about three hours.  We can leave the southwest and be in the northeast in no time at all.

When we arrive, we take a cab, but I cannot communicate with the cab driver, so Cindy’s son David comes to the rescue by phone and leads us to where we need to go. They live in a beautiful neighborhood with tree-lined streets, and one cannot imagine anything going wrong here.  Deep purple hydrangeas are so stunning it takes your breath away, the grass is a deep green.  I realize how shocking the bombings must have been at that marathon, because the feeling of Brookline is one of utter safety and order.  The natural beauty of New England in July makes the act of terrorism that took place April 15th even more grotesque, if that is even possible.

Cindy tells me that at her small Protestant church, The United Parish of Brookline, there are lawyers in attendance who are both working on the criminal case against the Boston bomber.  One lawyer is working for the prosecution, the other for the nineteen-year-old’s defense. The consensus so far is that he will be found guilty, and that the decision really hanging in the balance will be whether or not he gets the death penalty.  Puritans in colonial New England had the death penalty for much lesser offenses, but there is a strong leaning against the death penalty in general in this state. It is unclear how this case will unfold.  In any case, part of the argumentation will undoubtedly center on the fact that the bomber was only nineteen.  Yet he was able to cause the violence that killed a nine-year-old.  It is a nightmare.

Christopher and I start our touring in Boston on the Freedom Trail, starting at Boston Common, taking pictures of the plaque that reminds us that it was established for the public in 1634.  In Houston, we think anything from the sixties is old, and so I can see the wheels turning as Christopher figures out how long ago this was.  I see sophisticated lawyers walking briskly to their offices in smart flats and suits, as well as homeless people sleeping on cardboard beds covered in sleeping bags.  This really is Boston Common.

We buy tickets for our tour, which is led by our guide, Rob Crean, who calls himself Isaiah Thomas.  He is dressed in colonial garb with a tri-cornered hat, and his character is based on a historical figure who published a newspaper called The Massachusetts Spy.  He rounds us up, and we walk for two hours for the first part of the tour, following a red-bricked line that takes you through the city hitting major historical markers for the American Revolution.

We learn that in Puritan New England, Boston Common was used for public hangings as well as public debates and celebrations, an odd juxtaposition of civic trajectories.  In contrast to the Puritan aesthetic of restraint, we quickly come up to the impressive Massachusetts State House, with its Greco-Roman classical architecture, as well as its 23 carat gilded dome, the oldest building on Beacon Hill.  We are steeped in history, and we know it.  We pass the Park Street Church where the tall white steeple lets you know where you are and how our nation began, and church and state are both intertwined at this site as we learn that the nickname of the Church was “brimstone corner,” for the fire and brimstone sermons that were routinely delivered there, and also for the gunpowder stored there for the War of 1812.  On July 4th, 1829, the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison gave his first address against slavery.  On July 4th, 1831, the hymn “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” was first sung.  The religious and the political were not so severely separated:  the moral components of both were made concrete through the events at this church.

We see burial grounds for Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, the Boston Massacre victims.  We learn that Samuel Adams was a terrible businessman, but a brilliant revolutionary. John Hancock, who has the most famous signature in history, did not sign his own will.  Paul Revere was of French descent, but his father changed the pronunciation of his name to be more English.  We learn that the great were flawed, but this does not diminish their greatness, it merely makes them more impressive for being human as well.

We learn how quickly buildings can alter what they house:  King’s Chapel was the first Anglican Church constructed by King James II in 1688.  Yet only about a hundred years later, in 1785, it became the first Unitarian Church in America, a reflection of huge changes in both theology and allegiances.  In Boston, things move fast, and I am realizing that they always have.

We pass Boston Latin, the first public school in America, which is still a respected public school, but you have to pass rigorous exams to get in.  Benjamin Franklin attended, but did not graduate; however, his statue is in front of it.  Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Ralph Waldo Emerson did graduate and did pretty well for themselves if you use history as your frame of reference.  Standing in front of this school, I cannot help but marvel at Puritan influenced New Englanders, descendants of what essayist Sarah Vowell calls “The Wordy Shipmates,” the Puritans who so valued the written word above any other form of expression.  Puritans tend to get a bad rap:  but starting a regard for public education is a huge accomplishment that their cultural influence surely insured.  I have friends and colleagues who home school their children.  They can be pretty disdainful of the public school system in Texas.  But our tour makes me proud of a country that saw the importance of everyone being educated, regardless of background, and I start to feel my mind reel….if we don’t support public education for everyone, then can we really complain when public schools start to crumble?  Boston Latin proves that public education can be excellent, and I start thinking about how maybe it should be replicated, instead of so many people turning to homeschooling and private education.  When we let public schools decline, we hurt everyone, no matter what.

We see the site of the home of Ann Hutchinson, whose home Bible studies in 1638 got her a one way ticket to Rhode Island, and it is the same site as what was once the Old Corner Bookstore, which in the nineteenth century was a hub of literary activity. Ticknor and Fields published such literary luminaries as Dickens, Tennyson, Stowe, Longfellow, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Holmes, among many others, from 1833-1864, so you can imagine my disappointment that it is now a Chipotle fast food restaurant. Oh well.  You can always think counterculture thoughts or read a book while you are eating there.

We see the Old South Meeting House, where poet Phyllis Wheatley was a member, and where over 5,000 people protested the British tax on tea on December 16, 1773.

But maybe my favorite building of the entire tour is a colonial gem right smack in the middle of modern buildings in the center of Boston.  The Old State House Museum still has the symbols of English monarchy on each side of the top:  the lion for courage, the unicorn for bravery.  It is the oldest public building that has survived.  It is a mass of contradictions:  it held rooms for both commerce and politics, both offices appointed by the royal British government, as well as those elected members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  This building is the site of the famous Boston Massacre that intensified the American Revolution, as well as the place where The Declaration of Independence was first publicly read in July 1776.  It is a place where you feel there is a local habitation and a name for American Independence.

We have only gone through half of our tour, but I feel how palpable history can be, and the force of the spoken and written word.  Not only does our tour guide play the publisher of The Massachusetts Spy, we have seen the sites of the readings of The Declaration of Independence, the places where Phyllis Wheatley and others heard rhetoric that informed their minds and their poems. We have seen places that published the most influential minds of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of American thought.  It is humbling, and amazing that so much revolutionary fervor took place within so few square miles.

And we still have fervor for what we all think constitutes justice.  This has been a hard week in American culture:  protests throughout the nation in the George Zimmerman trial, polarized camps in the abortion debate in Texas, huge differences of opinion on same-sex marriage, immigration, Obamacare.  It is frustrating to feel thwarted politically when one feels morally right, even though we don’t all agree on what that is. But when I think about the Old State House, and Faneuil Hall, and the speeches and debates that impassioned patriots gave at these places, I am still glad that I live in a country where we can duke it out, lay out an argument, give it your best rhetorical shot without actually being shot.  People lost their lives so that we can do this, and you could pick worse months than July to think about these things.  From the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act during the revolution to the anti-slavery speeches during the abolitionist movement, Boston has been a place where free speech has reigned supreme.

When the tour ends, I think a lot about that nineteen year-old bomber. I realize that the contempt he must have for America must have, inevitably, been a contempt for freedom itself.  One can only imagine the wheels that turn in such a mind:  to live here freely, obtain government assistance, indulge in the advantages of American culture while plotting to harm its people. I know we are polarized, but the bombings in Boston reminded me that we have more to protect in common, more to lose in common, than our current debates suggest.  When those bombers were plotting to disrupt and injure and kill at the Boston Marathon, this nineteen-year-old was not looking at us as liberals or conservatives or men or women or northerners or southerners, but as Americans in a city that symbolizes freedom in ways that no other American city does.

When I called Cindy to firm up our plans for arrival in Boston, she reminded her husband, Dave, that his mother’s family had come over on The Mayflower.  She asked him, “Dave, do you remember who they were?”  He was completely nonplussed, and simply said, “No.”  This was how I knew for sure that it was true:  real Puritans aren’t really big fans of excessive pride.  This was hilarious to me:  it didn’t seem on his radar at all.  It didn’t seem to have anything to do with how he defined himself–it was a just a fact. On the other hand, it is everything:  the cultural legacy of the Puritans valuing the written and spoken word has been pivotal in our ability to protect our freedoms, and without that legacy, there is no guarantee we would not have had to rely on far less civilized means to preserve a distinctly American way of life.

After that tour, I thought of Cindy and me, attending a public high school in Texas, going to debate tournaments so that we could learn how to state a case and stand our ground.  I think of how teams would enter the room, take one look at us with our aerosoled Farrah Fawcett hairdos, and assume that we were two ditzy blondes and that this round would be a cakewalk.  Then we would crush them.  It was fun.

I thought of all the papers I have made students write so that if they ever happen to be right about something, they can string a sentence together.  It might be useful.

We visit my friends, we are so happy to see them, catch up, look around.  They live in Brookline.  It is a charming and beautiful place.  It is the place where two lawyers live who will oppose each other in the pursuit of truth regarding a terrible bombing.  They will offer arguments that will decide the fate of a young male who wanted to defy America rather than embrace its ideals.  It is a small world, but with big issues.  But the only shots fired will be rhetorical, and to think of the order with which we are able to conduct our own version of American freedom is still a marvel.  We have our conflicts, but the fact that we can have them at all is a testament to the freedom that we must value and protect, no matter how deep our disagreements.  There is nothing like a walk down that red bricked Freedom Trail in Boston to remind us of how the American notion of freedom was so hard-won, and so worth protecting.

I think of the Boston spectators looking for their loved ones to cross the finish line, then the terror, then the staying up all night wondering if there would be something else.   I think of the palpable and horrific anti-Americanism that has made me more proud to be an American than that nineteen-year-old could ever possibly imagine.  I don’t know if he will win in court.  But he has not won.

5 responses

  1. What a great piece! My daughter and I visited BU, BC and Northeastern over spring break. Our first visit to Boston and we were very impressed.

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