This Is Babylon

A moving piece by Jay Wamsted. I leave my room and head downstairs, paperwork in […]

A moving piece by Jay Wamsted.

I leave my room and head downstairs, paperwork in hand. Today is my first day back from an extended absence, and I have to get my principal to sign a form stating that I have, indeed, returned to work. He is not in his office, and though I briefly debate taking off for other errands, I decide to hang out in the lobby of the high school where I teach, catching up with a couple of colleagues I have not seen in some weeks. Our conversation is interrupted, however, when across the atrium I see a small group of wandering students, young men and women who are dragging their heels to class. My heart skips a beat; one of these boys has been burning at the edges of my mind for the past half-hour, ever since I heard the news. He notices me as he is coming down the stairs, and he is walking over even before I can call his name aloud.

“Jason!” I watch him cross the room as we close in on each other. He doesn’t speak, won’t even make eye contact, and I pull him in before he can slow to a stop, letting our inertia draw him into me. I hug him tightly, wrapping my arms around his neck and holding him close.

“What happened?” I whisper, and for a long moment he doesn’t speak. I can feel him trembling in my arms, this sixteen-year-old boy shaking like a child, and his voice cracks when he responds, words his mouth can barely get out.

“They killed him, Mr. Wamsted.”

That’s all he says, his voice choking off, but I already knew that much—I had found out just a few minutes before in a backlogged email, old information to everyone in the building but me. While I was at home, totally unplugged from school business, one of my students—Jason’s best friend—had been murdered.

I was absent from school for close to a month because just three weeks earlier my wife had given birth to our fourth child, a boy named Bo. We were more than a little keyed up about my return to work, anxious about how the morning would go—lack of sleep, nursing a baby, getting our school-age children on the bus, all while somehow making a way for me to get out the door for the first time in Bo’s life. Everything went amazingly, however. Bo slept through the night as well as could expected of any three week old; he had nursed while I was getting myself ready. My other children weren’t awake yet, it was still before dawn, and so after he ate I whisked Bo away from my wife—allowing her a touch more rest before her long day with the baby and our four year old—and made my way to the couch for breakfast, books, and some baby time. Here, too, he was simply wonderful, sitting cradled up between my knees as I drank coffee and prepared myself for the day, looking around in that quasi-vacant, warbly way an infant has that so captures your heart.

Eventually I began to read out loud to him, a not uncommon practice for me that took on a higher dimension with a baby on my knees. My church had been moving through the book of First Peter during the Easter season, and one of my pastors recently had made an explicit connection between Peter and Jeremiah: these men are both exile people. The impending reality of having to leave my child behind, even for a day, was making me feel like a bit of an exile person myself in the moment, and so I flipped to the chapter she had quoted and began to read.

We were alone, it was dark, the house was still; every word seemed to crackle through the air between us:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all who were carried away captive, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters—that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace (Jeremiah 29:4-7, NJKV)

I teach in a struggling, difficult school. We are located in a very poor part of southwest Atlanta, an area created by the shameful legacy of Jim Crow and white flight, and our academic outcomes follow these historical trajectories fairly well—by some metrics we are in the lowest performing 3% of Georgia high schools, this in a state that ranks near the bottom nationally in SAT scores and graduation rates. I have taught high school math in this neighborhood for the past twelve years, and the job often can be overwhelming. However, as I read Jeremiah 29 out loud to my son that morning I felt the words resonate, felt a renewed sense of God’s call to seek peace in a city where I feel that far too many of my students experience something akin to captivity. This is Babylon, my pastor had said in her sermon—this knowledge that all is not right with the world, that there is a promised land from which we temporarily have been banished. And yet, exiled though we are, we have been called to move forward and do God’s work nonetheless.

In the still smallness of my living room, holding my son and breathing the words of this ancient prophet, I felt a sense of assurance about heading back out into that big broken world. I felt ready to reengage with Babylon.

I hadn’t heard yet about the murder of my student, however. I had no idea what I was walking into.

“They killed him, Mr. Wamsted.”

“Who?” I asked. The murderer had already been caught, his name published in the paper, so I knew it was someone unknown to me. What I really wanted to know, however, was whether Jason was insulated from further escalation—was he going to go after some friend of the killer here in the near future? He wouldn’t answer my question, didn’t say a word as he pulled away from me and shook his head, his eyes brimming with tears. I, too, was a breath away from crying; we were both working hard to keep ourselves together in this very public place. “I can’t talk about this right now,” he says as he shrugs his way out of our conversation, leaning away from me and back to his friends. He is finally able to look me in the eye just a beat before he walks away.

He is out in the no-man’s-land of the lobby when I whisper his name again, trying to stay under the radar of his friends, knowing I have much of his attention already. “Jason.”

He looks back over his shoulder. “Love you, man,” I say, and he nods at me knowingly before he rejoins his group. One of them, I realized later, was the older sister of the murdered boy.

This is Babylon.

Many of my days in Babylon have created such stark contrasts between good and evil—I am no stranger to the violence endemic to communities in poverty—but this morning is one of the most dizzying. One minute I am holding my twenty-two-day-old son on my knees as I pray through the sunrise in the peace of my home; three hours later I will hold a broken teenage boy in my arms as he fights back tears over the brutal death of his best friend. Not to titillate, but details matter in stories like these: the boy bled out after being shot in a parked car by another teenager. Video surveillance captured the killer running away, stopping, returning to the car to put another bullet into my student in order to ensure his death.

I held Jason in my arms, devoid of any words that could even approach comfort, while at home my son slept in the arms of my wife. Against all our worries, the day at my house went really well. Jason’s life, however, will never be the same.

This is Babylon.

There are three weeks left in the school year, but I only see him twice more—neither of these in the class he is currently taking from me; he cuts every one of those meetings. One time he comes by for some assignments to cover all of the material he has been missing, the final project he never turned in. I do him the dignity of talking everything through, though he and I both know he won’t take care of any of his work at this point. We both know, also, that I won’t let this keep him from passing.

The last time I see him as I am walking up the stairs during the lunch period. He is posted up on the balcony, watching the lobby below—a sort of reverse of that moment on my first day back. I stop, lean in next to him, watch the traffic beneath us as we ease into a conversation about school and jobs. He claims to be set up to pass all of his classes, though I find this difficult to believe, knowing how far he has fallen in mine. He tells me that he has a second part-time job lined up for the summer, and I feel a moment of thanksgiving for small things—I know this will keep him busy, off the streets, far away from cars parked in dangerous places.

“S’tough, Mr. Wamsted,” he says, when I work my way around to his friend. “Everyone keeps telling me to stay strong, to pray. I dunno…” He stares straight ahead, breaking off into a vacant silence.

He answers some perfunctory questions about his friend’s family—I push him a little on the sister, who I also taught some years back—but I no more know what to say here than I did when we were holding back tears in the lobby. I mumble my way through something I can only hope was comforting, trying to be optimistic without sounding Pollyanna, realistic without being bitter. The truth is, though, that I am just so worried about him, frightened at the prospects of a drifting teenager who is barely scraping by high school and already cruelly indoctrinated into underground life. Two part-time jobs paying around minimum wage will only hold his attention for so long. As if in a deliberate effort to redouble my fears, he tells me about a friend of theirs who just got sentenced, fifteen years for holding up a jewelry store. “My brothers…” he trails off, shaking his head.

From the ground floor someone throws me a set of keys, asks me to go unlock a classroom, so Jason and I start walking together. After running the errand, however, something about the eddies of the hallway breaks us up. We are together for a moment, weaving around obstacles side by side in silent conversation, and then suddenly we aren’t. He is walking the other way, a dozen yards down the hall before I even notice that we have been separated. I call out a good-bye to him; he waves over his shoulder. I won’t see him again before we break for summer, can only hope he will return to school in the fall.

And then hours later I get to go home to my healthy family—hug my children, hold my baby, kiss my wife.

Build the houses, dwell in them; plant the gardens, eat the fruit.

We have all been called to live in this broken world, but sometimes it hurts so badly I can hardly see straight, whiplashed by the good and the evil existing so closely side by side. We are all exile people.

This is Babylon.