Cambridge Wonders What Went Wrong with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

As Cambridge gets back to school, residents struggle to wrap their heads around the revelations of last week.

It’s been a few days now since we learned that the alleged marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, lived on Norfolk Street in Cambridge, and it doesn’t make any more sense now than it did last week. I’ve lived in the city for the last five years, two of them in an apartment just down the street from the Tsarnaev brothers, and am sure I must have passed them by. My old roommate swears he played pick-up basketball with Dzhokhar. It boggles the mind.

Others around town have been equally jarred. “Friday is probably one of the worst days I will ever remember,” Ken Reeves, a Cambridge City Councilor since 1990 and three-time mayor of the city told me over the phone. “It’s shocking,” said Alice Wolf, who, between 1974 and 2012, served Cambridge on its school committee, city council, as its mayor, and in the State House as a legislator. “When we learned that the suspects were from Norfolk Street—Oh my god, I know exactly where that is,” she said.

Standing on a street corner near the Tsarnaev apartment on Friday, I met a teenager named Alex who told me that he knew Dzokhar, the younger brother who graduated from Cambridge Rindge and Latin in 2011, from their after-school program. Alex had been hanging around the police line that had been roped off while authorities looked for evidence, talking in a low voice on his phone and, with his eyes nearly squinted shut, looking distraught. We didn’t get much time to chat, but his connection to the apparent bomber hung with me—there can’t be many suspected terrorists in the world who were nurtured through their formative years with after-school programs.

But this is Cambridge. It’s the type of place where after-school programs have their own after-school programs. As the high school, along with the rest of the school system, opened its doors on Monday for the first time since the attack, superintendent Jeffrey Young told me that he’s continued to struggle with the same question: “How is it that someone can grow up in a place like this and end up in a place like that?”

That Cambridge is a liberal place is often put forth as a platitude, but the city’s ivy-covered caricature doesn’t do its complexity justice. With a population of about 105,000, Cambridge is two-thirds white, and a third minority. On the other hand, the school system is 35.5 percent African American, 14 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Asian, and 37 percent white. Nearly 40 percent of its students qualify for free lunch, with most of them coming from families in subsidized housing. Over the years, Cambridge has strongly supported housing programs, leading to some 10,000 Cantabrigians, or about 10 percent of the city’s population, living in a subsidized arrangement. Even with so many students coming from such a small sliver of the population, the city funds its schools with $26,305 per student annually, nearly $5,000 more per student than the next closest district in the Boston area. Put another way, the much derided Cambridge liberals put their money where their mouth is when it comes to supporting both education and the needier among them.

That hardly means everything’s perfect. As I wrote about in the magazine a few years ago, there are deep-seeded racial tensions rooted in the school system. But the district has worked admirably to confront them, this year introducing new middle schools in an effort to close the stubborn achievement gap between white and minority students. For a student to emerge from this environment and become an alleged terrorist, to many, is simply heartbreaking.

“You say, my goodness,” Young reflected, “here’s this guy who grows up in a place that is, if not the most inclusive and diverse and welcoming and supportive community for kids from diverse backgrounds, I don’t know what is.”

Knowing that many of his students would be equally perplexed, Young and his teachers and administrators worked over the weekend to develop a program to help ease them back from vacation. At Rindge and Latin, instead of the normal schedule yesterday, each grade took a turn meeting in the auditorium for class-wide assemblies to discuss the marathon attack. Students were also given time later in the day to talk about it further, and counselors were on site.

“The mood was serious,” Young said. “It’s not like there was a heavy cloud of depression hanging over the school…Very pensive, that’s what I noticed. A lot of kids with their  finger on their cheek, just a pensive look.”

Young said he sat in on a few of the class-wide assemblies, which started mostly with logistical issues and pointers for how to deal with the media. Then the agenda opened up for kids to ask or say whatever they liked. “This is what was so incredible, because it showed the whole range of what that school is like,” Young said. Some issues that came up were “almost metaphysical,” he said.”Can a good person do a bad thing? Because a number of kids know, not so much the older brother, but the younger brother. And they sort of can’t believe that it happened.”

“There were questions from students about academic type topics,” he continued, “like, how come they didn’t read that kid his Miranda rights? And what’s this about the exception? Will they try him in a civil court or military court? How do they decide that kind of thing?”

“It was very Cambridge, in a great way.”

Naturally, the events of the last week have led to some soul searching in town. While Reeves said that he has faith in his community, he believes some self-examination is in order. “It’s often the toothache that tells you something is wrong with the tooth,” he said. “Despite the fact that we thought we had isolated ourselves from certain kinds of pain, upon examination, this tooth has something very rotten.”

If he’s looking for positive signs, a good place to start may be at the high school. Each grade has about 400 students, and Young said he was struck by how, during one of yesterday’s class-wide assemblies, a Muslim girl stood up to speak in front of all her peers. She told her classmates how, when she first heard about the marathon bombings, she hoped that the perpetrators would not be Muslim, because she feared resulting prejudice. “So she turned to the other 399 kids,” Young recounted, “and said please don’t judge me by the way that I dress or for my religion, only for the way that I am.”

“When she finished speaking, the other 399 kids just go into this sustained ovation of applause for her,” Young said. “To me, in that instant, you saw Cambridge Rindge and Latin.”