Today, I was invited to present at Tubman Middle School in the inner-city of Augusta, Georgia. The students live in a depressed part of Augusta where textile workers used to live before the mills shut down. They have grown up with gang violence in their neighborhoods and go through routine weapons inspections at schools. These kids know violence. I have taken the film to middle-class kids at public and private schools but never inner-city kids with these kinds of experiences. I did not know what to expect.
I had three sessions that lasted an hour and a half each with groups of 30 students, first 8th graders, then 6th graders, then 7th graders. Out of 100 students, all but two were African-American. I started out by talking about Sept 11th. This is how our sessions went:
“How old were you all when 9/11 happened?” I begin.
They shout out: “Seven. Six. Eight.”
“What do you remember?“
“On the TV, planes went into the towers.”
And who was responsible?”
They answer: “Sadaam Hussein.”
“That is a misperception that many Americans still have. Do you remember whose face they showed after 9/11?”
After some thought: “Osama bin Laden.”
“And who was he?”
“Sadaam Hussein’s brother.”
In all three sessions, these kids take as fact that Sadaam Hussein and Iraq were responsible for 9/11. I must break down the misinformation and give them the facts before I can move on to the problem of hate crimes.
“So what does bin Laden look like?”
At this, one student points to Mr. Narinder Malik in the corner of the room who had come with me. Mr. Malik is a distinguished member of the Sikh community and wears a turban and beard, like my grandfather. He looks at the student.
“He looks like you,” the boy says.
And that is how we begin. I introduce them to the Sikh religion, why Mr. Malik keeps his turban, and the Sikh greeting “Satsriakal.” They all turn to Mr. Malik and say “Satsriakal” in unison, hands folded. I then sweep them into the story of what happened to my community after 9/11, how bin Laden looked like my uncles and cousins, how my community was attacked, and how I was so scared, I escaped to my bedroom and read all the Harry Potter books.
“I wanted to stay in the black and white world where Harry fought Voldemort instead of face the complexity outside my bedroom door where Americans were killing other Americans,” I explain. “Somewhere between pages 277 and 278, I began to remember the stories my grandfather told me about surviving the 1947 Partition riots and the 1984 Sikh massacres. These stories were not in my history book. Are there stories that your grandparents have told you that aren’t in YOUR history book?
They concentrate and nod.
“So who is writing history? Can we tell our own stories? I had the idea to tell my community’s story, so that people would know what was happening. But it was such a big idea, that I was scared by it. Ever had a big idea that scared you?“
One kid raises his hand: “Yeah, I had the big idea of starting a newspaper.”
“Why didn’t you do it?” I ask.
“I was too young,” he says.
“That’s fear,” I respond. “It is easy to let our fear keep us from chasing our big ideas. And I would have let fear stop me too. But the words of my grandfather came to me. He gave me the heart of the Sikh religion: ‘In order to realize yourself and realize God, you must act, here and now, without fear’. And so I did! I got in my car at 20 years old and drove across the country and made the film and almost seven years later, I’m here talking to you. Each of us has the power to make our big ideas come true. Want to see some of the movie?”
At this, they nod eagerly. I show them the opening of the film about Balbir Sodhi’s murder and my family’s history and the Sikh religion and the decision to leap into the whirlwind. While I watch the kids watch the film, I imagine their lives and their needs and an idea comes over me.
“While I was on the road, people began to yell at me and tell me to go back to my country.” I share with them. “It was the first time I was seen as an outsider. People did not see me the way I saw myself. All of us can remember a time when we have experienced this too. So try something with me. Put your feet on the ground. Sit up in your chair. Put your hands in your lap. And close your eyes.”
The squirming kids miraculously do this. It takes extra effort to get some of them to close their eyes but they finally sit still.
“Now take your mind to a memory where you were seen as an outsider, when you were judged or disrespected, when someone called you a name or put you down, ” I say slowly. “And as you remember this moment, feel your emotions. What do you feel? And now, pay attention to your body and notice what happens. What is happening in your stomach, your chest, your throat, you face? Go there.”
I can see the kids wrinkling up their brows as they concentrate.
“And now take your mind to a different memory,” I say. “This time choose a moment when you felt GREAT LOVE. And great support. Go to that love. It could be your mother, your father, your brother or sister, your teacher, your friend. It could be in prayer. Let yourself feel that love. Smile into it. And notice what happens in your body. Your stomach, your chest, your face. Feel the love. And enjoy that.”
The kids are smiling.
“Now open your eyes. Well done! That was courageous. Did you feel that?”
They nod furiously.
They hesitate to share their stories. Some of them had gone really deep. Some begin to cry and the teacher comes over to hug them and give them tissues. These kids felt those moments really, really intensely, I realize. It is too much for them to share memories, so I ask them to share what they felt.
They begin to shout out:
“My stomach tightened! My heart ached! My chest hurt! My face got hot!”
“And what did you feel when you felt the love?“
They call out:
“My chest opened up! My ribs felt tingly. I felt it through my whole body, flowing through my whole body. My face started smiling!“
One 7th grade-girl musters up the courage to share her two moments:“I was walking down the street with my friends, and we were all together, and there were people sitting across the street. They were like Caucasian. And they was looking at us, like real mean. And it made me feel bad. It just made me feel bad. Like they were looking at us because were black. Because we were different. I felt it in my chest and in my heart.”
“And what was the loving moment you went to?” I ask.
“I thought of going home to my sister and telling her. And I felt my sister’s love. And I could see like her face right in front of me. It made me smile. And it made my heart feel better.“
“When something bad happens to you, it is important to feel angry and hurt. But if we stay there, then we become bitter, angry, and sad all our lives. And that doesn’t do anyone any good. So we have to go the second moment. We have to go to the love. Go to your mother, your father, your sister, your friend, your God, and feel their love. That is the full picture. The world is mean and cruel, but the world is also beautiful and loving. Each of us has love in our lives. And when we go to the love, you know what we can do next? With that love, we can reach deep inside the pain and hatred, and create something out of it! We can make a poem or write a story or do a play or decide what we want to be when we grow up or start a newspaper — or even make a film! I’m telling you this, because if I can do it, each and every one of you has the power to create anything you dream of.”
I have them all take out sheets of paper and make them write down three main points.
“When bad things happen to you or when you get hurt, what do you do? Number One: FEEL THE PAIN.”
“What if you can’t feel no pain?” one boy asks quietly, while everyone else is scribbling it on their paper.
“That’s a good question. Sometimes it’s really hard. Then you take yourself away from everyone into a quiet place and you sit there with the memory like we just did. And if you sit long enough, you will be able to notice where it shows up in your body, maybe in your chest or your stomach. Because the body is feeling it even if we don’t know it. So you have to connect your brain to the rest of you to feel it. Sometimes it takes time.”
“Why do we have to feel it? Why can’t we just ignore it?” another girl asks.
“You have to feel the pain, because if you don’t it will hide in your body and show up later on. So you have to feel all of it so that it can work through your body and then let go.”
“Ready for Number Two? Number Two: GO TO THE LOVE. What does that mean?”
They shout out: “Go to your loving moment! Close your eyes and go to your happy place! Go to your sister or mother. Go to people who love you!”
”Yes! Even if you are far away from people who love you, you can close your eyes and feel their love, just like we did. And once you do those things, now Number Three: CREATE SOMETHING OUT OF IT. Once you have felt the pain and feel the love, you now have the power to reach deep into that experience and create something good out of it. And this will not only save you. It will save other people. In fact, THIS is how you begin to change the world.”
They are getting it. It is resonating.
“Do you want to know my two moments? The first was when people yelled at me on the road, and I got angry. But my loving moment was when I went all the way to India to meet the widow of the man who was killed. Do you want to go there with me?”
“When you get hurt or when bad things happen to you, what do you do? Number One?”
“FEEL THE PAIN!” They shout out.
“GO TO THE LOVE!”
“CREATE SOMETHING GOOD OUT OF IT!”
“Now stand up on your chairs! Everyone stand on your chairs. And stand with your shoulders back. When we protect ourselves we collapse our shoulders in, yes, like that. So we need to create space around your heart and pull your shoulders back, like your heart has wings! Yes! Now say it with me! When bad things happen to us, what do we do?”
1. FEEL THE PAIN!
2. GO TO THE LOVE!
3. CREATE SOMETHING!
I get chills. It is done. The kids are buzzing and they leave buzzing, and I am buzzing too.
Thank you to Ayman Fadel, Greg Davis, Narinder Malik, and all the teachers and students at Tubman Middle School for this magical day.