I celebrate Memorial Day as the proud daughter of a World War II Marine, the first in his family to go to college--on the GI bill. It seems if we celebrate that, we must remember people like Adrianna "Audrey" Castellanos, too. So I'm posting this with the permission of the author, Joshua Leibner, NBCT. It is one of Josh's regular emails to a list of former students. I'm lucky to have gotten on that list and would be luckier still if I'd spent time in his classroom.
One of my favorite contemporary authors is a poet from Milford, Michigan named Thomas Lynch. He is also the town's undertaker.
In one of Lynch's many extraordinary essays about death and life, he noted a truth about his trade: "When we bury the old, we bury the known past, the past we imagine sometimes better than it was, but the past all the same, a portion of which we inhabited. Memory is the overwhelming theme, the eventual comfort. But burying infants, we bury the future, unwieldy and unknown, full of promise and possibilities, outcomes punctuated by our rosy hopes. The grief has no borders, no limits, no known ends, and the little infant graves that edge the corners and fencerows of every cemetery are never quite big enough to contain that grief. Some sadnesses are permanent. Dead babies do not give us memories. They give us dreams.”
Ten years ago today, one of the most remarkable students I ever had, Adrianna "Audrey" Castellanos, was driving home to Carson from her first year at UC Santa Cruz when a car swerved in front of her and caused her car to crash. Audrey died that day.
Most of you, of course, didn't know her--although a lot of you did, or you heard of her.
Although Audrey wasn't one of Lynch's "babies," she was still in the infancy of her potential future and a life and unrealized dreams that would have gone on to affect many others.
Most students aren't politically "aware" until later in life. All of you who have moved beyond high school have at one point been made cognizant of how much politics and its application dictates everything about our lives. On your college campuses you certainly saw activists protesting and campaigning for causes both global and local and you saw how your one tiny life can create a change in the universe by lending your own voice to a movement.
I first met Audrey when she and some friends wanted to sponsor a Peace Club at Carson High.
Okay. Sure. Come here meet during lunch.
But what I was most impressed by was that this wasn't some wussy, namby-pamby Kumbaya organization that was more feel good for college bound participants than truly a meaningful, thoughtful activity. Audrey had a very sophisticated understanding of oppression politics as played out on minorities and the poor. She was determined to make the Peace Club live and breathe.
Audrey and that Peace Club did something in March, 2003 that I will always remember. In a now faraway era of the Bush-Cheney years, the machinations for the Iraq War invasion were fully in place. They had greased the political wheels for an assault on that country among the population, but, all ground wars need soldiers to show up.
The sickening truth is that the US Military recruits on high school campuses across the country--but they target poor and minority schools to get their working class soldiers. How did we know Bush had decided on war? A few days before the attack on Iraq, the Army came to campus with all the candy. The Humvees and glitzy war props were set up in the Carson quad...the glossy brochures with promises of a college education after a four year commitment...the promises of a "career" after service...the flags and gang-like brotherhood of soldiers with words of "honor", "respect" and "duty" tossed like star-spangled graffiti on a population whose country only comes to them with goodies if blood is required.
The Peace Club reacted quickly with a counter protest of their own and surrounded the snappily dressed recruiters with signs saying "Go Recruit in Manhattan Beach!" or "Take your Humvee to Palos Verdes!" and got in their face challenging their promotion pitch. Nervous administrators were worried about these student protesters and thought it was disrespectful to the school's "guests" to confront them in such a manner.
I have never been so proud of a bunch of high school students in my entire life.
Audrey would go on to further her education and activism at UC-Santa Cruz, a school with a fabled history of social justice. Two months before her death, Audrey had already participated in supporting striking bus drivers in Santa Cruz and traveled to Tecate, Mexico for her spring break to help build houses for the poor. She belonged to the Coalition Against Militarism in Schools and Amnesty International.
She was one of only six winners statewide of the Youth Activism Award, an honor presented each year by the California Teachers Association.
The perennial Christmas favorite movie It's A Wonderful Life speculates about what would happen to one man's community if that person wasn't around to "change" things for the better. I often wonder what difference Audrey would have made to plenty of communities if she were still around rolling up her sleeves and motivating others towards working to a more just society.
You should know that I'm tremendously proud that a lot of you have taken up work and passions that seek to assist others in ways that challenge power structures and demand rights and empowerment for many who have been hurt and injured by a system that has ignored their needs. Despite its working class and minority status, Carson High produced a lot of hearts who have dedicated themselves to a broader, societal perspective.
Schools (and education pedagogies) are not neutral. Educators have a duty and obligation to expose and challenge their students to understanding the world that they are entering into and give them the opportunities and tools to find their own voices and ways in doing so. Each student will discover their own unique and individual way of expressing that world, all navigating how they choose to live in it.
But they must LEARN and EXPERIENCE that world for themselves.
So this note is not for Audrey who is sadly dead these past ten years.
This is for you, the living, in hope that whatever you are doing or thinking, you are finding a greater meaning in the opportunity that merely being alive affords.