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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The victim with my name

I had already been reeling for a day when a friend emailed me a single chilling sentence: “One of the children killed in Newtown, Connecticut was named Benjamin Wheeler.” Just like me.

I stared at the pixelated name on my phone’s screen. I couldn’t recognize anything familiar in those few letters, in that minimal sentence. There was so little I knew, so much I didn’t.

My initial reaction was distancing: to look for ways to focus on my immediate and picayune tasks. I looked immediately for aspects of the violence that meant I was not in the same world as it: I live in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, where we gentrifiers have emphatically chosen the problems of the city over the problems of the suburbs. No matter that children get shot in my neighborhood too: this horror happened in another world. The cold form of the digital message helped me to quiet any echo of what happened to this child, this small child who shares my name.

How much is in a name, really? I must already have so much in common with these kids, just by having been one: their simple joys; their fierce belief in favorite foods and movies and songs; the everyday discoveries a child makes which are humdrum to me now but which once fascinated and confounded me.

And yet, as time goes on, I find myself seized with a sense of connection to this boy that I can’t shake.

I know that he is dead, as unbelievable as it still seems. But in the weeks since the shooting, as I have caught pictures and quotes about him from loved ones, he has come alive in my mind. I read that he was a piano student, a bundle of energy, still effusively talking of love at an age where so many kids abandon that type of sincerity as kindergarten stuff. I too was these things at 6.

Yet at the same time I know our similarities are dwarfed by our differences; and that all I have had is a moment’s glimpse of his life. Is the connection really so profound, or am I just latching on to something besides sheer dismay, something I can talk about that gives me a path through this madness?

Widely printed photo of Benjamin Wheeler, Newtown, CT.

Can I trust my conviction when I swear he even bears an uncanny resemblance to me at age 6? Is that why I shake with emotion I don’t understand when I look at his picture?

I think of Benjamin’s parents and their grief, which must be bottomless. Here I do understand my emotions: they compel me to slam the door and run away. I too am a father, of two girls younger than Benjamin was, and it terrifies me just to put my girls and their son in the same sentence.

I’m lucky my daughters are too young to register the news, though sometimes my eldest knows something is amiss from the way I clutch her. Like every parent in America whose kids are safe and sound, I have been alternating since that Friday between piercing anguish and thankfulness that my kids are okay. Singing them to sleep suddenly seems an impossible joy. If I wonder at times why I deserve this grace, that doubt is obliterated by a primordial instinct to protect. For now I know, in a way I thought I did before but really didn’t, that I’m ultimately powerless to be my daughters’ shield.

Me, age 6.

Like Benjamin was, I am an American amalgam: a Jew with an incongruous, Scottish last name. Even before I learned Benjamin was also Jewish I thought of a boy named Franta Bass, a victim of the Holocaust. Franta Bass was sent at age 11 to TerezĂ­n, the twisted model village-cum-concentration camp that pretended to the world that it was a nurturing place for children. A poem has survived that he wrote there while waiting--it is still inconceivable--to be murdered there by the Nazis:

A little garden, Fragrant and full of roses. The path is narrow And a little boy walks along it.

A little boy, a sweet boy, Like that growing blossom. When the blossom comes to bloom, The little boy will be no more.

In my childhood temple, the congregation would read this poem during the Yom Kippur service. This was the point every year when I would weep, beginning when I was about the age that Franta Bass was when he was killed.

They say you don’t cry when the pain is its very worst, but instead when it begins to recede. And when I search myself, I find that I can identify the thread of my relief. When I pull on it, a door opens onto the beauty of his vision; I can feel him holding on to joy, his gentleness and his love for himself. This boy is reaching out to me, across the brutal decades, and opening his heart. And amidst the horror, I can see it, as clear as the sun.

I’m surely not the only Benjamin Wheeler out there knocked off my axis over this. It’s a common enough name: Benjamin Ide Wheeler was an early president of the University of California, and there’s even a town in Texas named Ben Wheeler, named for the Pony Express-era rider whose mail delivery put it on the map. That town was a delight to my North Texan grandfather, Ben Kerr Wheeler; in the early days of telephone, my grandmother Belle once traveled there on the sly so the operator could announce her call with “Mr. Ben Wheeler? I have a Mrs. Ben Wheeler, calling from Ben Wheeler, Texas!”

In fact, I had two grandfathers named Ben... sort of. I always knew my maternal grandfather, an immigrant from what is now Belarus, as “Bernie”. But I also knew he had other names in other languages, as assimilating immigrants often do. His original name, Dov Ber, was already a linguistic mishmash; “dov” and “ber” both mean the same thing, bear, in Hebrew and Yiddish respectively. As I learned much later, “Ben” had been his preferred Americanization of “Dov Ber” until I was born, and he was furious at my parents for choosing the name of a living relative, something frowned upon in Ashkenazi Jewish tradition.

As common as the first name Benjamin has become, it has always struck me as glaringly biblical. My parents thought they were digging up a forgotten gem when they named me, only to find three other Benjamins waiting for me in my first grade class (though I was the only one who went by Benji). I prefer the crisp “Ben” that was my grandfather’s full first name, and which for years has outranked Benjamin in the census ranking.

I sometimes ask my wife if my name seems as strange to her as it does to me. I can catch “Benjamin” in the corner of my eye, but I can’t see it clearly like I do other names. The same is true for my face: I can’t conjure an image of it in my mind, couldn’t really say I’ve met the guy I see in the mirror. And yet I feel the shock of recognition in the picture Benjamin Wheeler’s family has provided to the papers. He looks as breathless and awkward as I did at 6, and with the same sprawling mop of hair.

Are the other Benjamin Wheelers also remembering themselves at that age? What a titanic year that was for me! The year I first had an inkling of sex, the year I started reading for pleasure; and the year of my first exposure to death.

Our teacher Ms. Bolanz, beloved to a generation of Cambridge, Mass public schoolchildren, died of cancer midyear. Did I mourn her, at that age? That memory is hidden to me. My mother tells me I insisted on attending her memorial service, that I wanted to say goodbye. What I remember is the presence of so many former students, many of them adults, whose lives she had touched. In the fall I announced I was to be called Ben, no longer the childish Benji, though I’ve never before noticed that timing.

I became a voracious student, diving headlong into interests--dinosaurs, planets, geography, and the just-born world of video games. (I also, to the surprise of no one who knows me today, had a little side interest in barrettes and My Little Pony.)

Like some boys, my passion for cataloging and collecting could border on the obsessive, and I had a tyrannical preoccupation with rules. But unlike boys at the border of the autism spectrum, I was also deeply empathetic, always transfixed by the struggles of slow and awkward classmates. As I grew older, I felt out of step with other kids, coming across either as obnoxiously precise or with my head hopelessly in the clouds. I learned to second guess myself, to hold back my first response and vet it for appropriateness; to be less buoyant and to rein in my imagination.

Teachers too were short on patience for a kid who could spend a whole class scribbling in the borders of his schoolwork and then suddenly pipe up to correct their I’s and me’s. I clashed with many of them, though I realize now with surprise that they would probably have taken a bullet for me.

That’s who I was as a boy. And because I know so little about the Benjamin Wheeler who died in Connecticut, that’s what I’ve noticed myself using to fill in all the gaps. The terse email that brought Benjamin Wheeler to my attention had little it could tell me, and nothing to narrow the terrible distance. But by imagining that boy as being like I was, I have turned that bitter report into an invitation. I feel a comfort in telling myself a story about him. I am almost draping him with garlands: sweetness; curiosity; dedication; intensity.

But is the real boy lost in all this, made even more distant? I only get the narrowest suggestion of who he was from the articles about him. He was his own person, with his own gifts and challenges. I did not share his suffering, and I have no place in his family’s grief. There is no connecting the fact that I have had the chance to see where my life at 6 was going, and he never will.

I never knew that Benjamin existed until that Friday, but I want to tell him that I’m sorry I couldn’t protect him. I can’t begin to tell that to all of the children, and I can’t speak such a thing to my children, in their blissful ignorance. So I want to tell it to Benjamin, as I imagine him.

His image is before me. I don’t know how much of it is the Benjamin Wheeler who was just getting started in 2012, and how much the one in 1985. But I can see his gentleness blooming.

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Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Mar 13, 10:30:00 PM:
Wow, Ben, that was such an amazing story. As a parent, it moves me, scares me, warms me and warns me all at once. And as your friend, it makes me even more fond of you (especially the 6-year old Benji who I am just now meeting!). But of course, what is does most of all is make we weep once again for the victims of this horror. It makes me ask myself once again if I am doing enough to try to make this tragedy have some sliver of silver lining. If the results of this unbelievable mark on us all can in some small way lead to some small semblance of sanity in the way we operate as a society. Because you're right, we can't really protect our kids...not really. But we can certainly do our best to make it harder to hurt them. To make it harder for someone to make a rash decision that is irreversible, when a few obstacles in their path may have given them cause for pause. Because if one such massacre is averted because one person on the brink couldn't get his/her (who am I kidding...his) hands on a weapon of massive destruction so fast, isn't that worth any/all inconveniences that gun-buyers may have to endure for a day or two each as they purchase their cherished killing sticks? because that's what it comes down to for me--who is it more important to inconvenience, the NRA members, of the grieving parents? And that, to me, is, literally, a no-brainer. Thanks, Ben, for renewing my spirit in getting something done that simply has to be done. And for sharing so much of who you were/are.
Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Mar 13, 10:37:00 PM:
Amazing write-up. So deep profound and emotional. Life is so full of crazy twists we must relish our lives and our families!
Blogger Unknown on Wed Mar 13, 10:47:00 PM:
Ben Wheeler! - Great thought provoking piece. Reading this took me back. I remember the Ben Wheeler of 1985. Such a precocious, thoughtful and kind kid - and a great friend to have in an early grade in a K-8 school. I think you and I attended Ms. Bolanz's funeral together. I remember that being the first time I ever felt grief. Anyway, I hope you and your family are well. Peace, Andrew Frankel

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Mischievous vitality and self possession

I spoke with some of [Amy's brother] Seth’s friends, now men in their forties, and more than one started crying at the mention of his name. They attested to his mischievous vitality and his self-possession. Once, in middle school, he was surrounded in the cafeteria by classmates who taunted him for carrying his violin and suggested, mockingly, that he play it. Seth removed the instrument from its case, raised his bow, and began to play, beautifully, until the bullies were cowed into silence. “He called their bluff,” [Seth's best friend] Agnew, who observed the episode, remembered.

From Patrick Radden Keefe's excellent profile of tenure-denied mass shooter Amy Bishop in the New Yorker.

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