The Boston Marathon is kinda a big deal where I’m from. Each and every year it brings runners together from around the world to tackle the mythic climb of Heartbreak Hill, down into Kenmore Square past fans who went to the early Red Sox game, and then a final push around the corner at Hereford Street and onto Boylston. There, in front of a hundred thousand screaming fans is a moment that most ‘regular’ athletes will never be able to comprehend or participate in. Most of us will never be able to hear the screaming adulation of a hundred thousand people behind your final push to the finish line. All in all over a million people watch from the sides of the road along this 26.2 mile course.
Most of us will never be able to push our bodies past the point of complete exhaustion one more step, one more yard, one more mile with no hope of a big paycheck, just the will to win their own personal fight against the course. Every year 26,000 runners get to experience that exultation right there alongside the class runners of the world. This is the magic of Marathon Monday.
I lived in Boston from 1999 through the early summer 2014 before we moved to Maine. Before I met my wife it was a tradition for my friends living in town to travel plop down somewhere along the course (with a few beverages) and watch the throngs of runners strive, earnestly, towards an achievement that few can equal. In the spring of 2013 my wife was in the middle a 30hr shift (she was an emergency resident at Boston Medical Center) so I decided to show my four month old son the fun and excitement of the Boston Marathon. I walked to the T with little dude strapped to my chest in a Baby Bjorn and chatted with lots of marathon goers on the way downtown. It was a beautiful spring day.
We all know what happened after that.
As I was walking though the Prudential Center mall, almost to the street, we felt the entire building shake. “Maybe a T just derailed”, I said to two friends who had joined us. Then the second explosion hit. A wave of humanity started running towards us. Hundreds of people fleeing in terror. I witnessed an elderly woman pushed to the ground and disappear in the sea of running legs. One of my friends stopped to help her and also disappeared from my view. I was caught up in the wave with no way out. My other friend… just disappeared. I scrambled to find a safe haven for my child. Every time I was pushed or shoved back into the teeming, running, frightened mass of terror. I was pushed the length of the corridor until the mall opened up into an atrium area. I was finally able to find refuge behind a large potted plant in a corner ( a woman yelled to others “Get that baby over here and keep him safe!”. YES! I thought to myself, that’s a great idea! And the dad that is attached to the baby! The police started moving everyone towards an exit. As we were directed to the Huntington St. I searched for my friends. I found one outside near the water fountain across the street near the Huntington St. entrance.
A runner passed by me. “Are you OK” I asked, “What happened?”.
“Bombs” she replied, “Two of them”. I could see plainly that she was in shock. Her body shaking as she moved passed. She had just finished the marathon and was already past the point of exhaustion and now had to contend with this.
“Are you OK?” she asked me, “How is your baby?”. I hadn’t stopped to think about my son in all the confusion. I started to shake. I had forgotten that my son had just experienced all this terror as well. He may not remember it but he was there, too. All at once the emotion welled up and I wept. I can’t tell you if I have ever cried as hard as that moment.
My wife took care of many of the victims as they came out of surgery. She has said since that she has never seen an emergency room so covered in blood, something she will never forget. Since she was in the midst of a 30hr shift, we couldn’t hug each other until the next day. We couldn’t speak to each other since the phone lines were down. The first person brought to BMC that day was a 37 year old male with his legs blown off. I was 37 at the time. She only knew it wasn’t me when the ambulance arrived in the emergency bay.
This isn’t a sob story though. It is about resilience. It is about identity. When you look at a place through the lens of geography you see stories like this all over the world. The marathon bombing embodies a lot of how Bostonians view themselves and how they look out at the world. A “You can knock me down but we will get up again” mentality. The phrase Boston Strong was not about selling t-shirts, it is a mantra. When you are Boston Strong, you can push yourself past the point of pain, past the point of exhaustion, go the extra mile. Just one more mile. Just like the runners of the marathon. The two were inexorably linked before the bombs but now it is deeper in the gut and heart.
It’s also how Bostonians see helping others. Boston often gets criticized for being thick skinned, blunt and unwilling to help others in times of need. But look at it from the perspective of the marathon and the bombing and you will see it a little differently. No one helps runners because the runners don’t want help, they want to do the race themselves. No one needs help… until they do. When a runner falters on the course they don’t have to ask for help because it is already there beside them. You will always see another runner stop and help, the crowd will always cheer them on a little louder. I’ve seen the mentality of “If you don’t need help you won’t get any but if you do need it, we’re already there helping” countless times in the winter during massive snowstorms.
Events happen that change a place and in doing so they become part of the fabric of how that place sees itself. The people of Boston came together. They looked straight into the eye of adversity and became galvanized. You see it on the street today. Strangers look into each other’s eyes and greet each other with a smile and a “wus’up?”, knowing they were one in the same on that day.
As an educator I have become more aware of how events shape the perspectives the people who live them. Bombings, wars, genocides, earthquakes, volcanoes, tidal waves are not just events in a text book. They are defining moments that live in the present as well as the past. The rest of the world will move on and the news will always cover the next tragedy in its 24hr news cycle but for the people who lived through tragedy, their world view is changed forever.
It is incumbent on us as educators to make sure that the students we teach look past the events and look closer at the people that it affects.