It was Tuesday morning. While I was getting ready for the day, I finally watched the devastating video of the now-infamous pool party in McKinney, Texas. I had been avoiding it but knew it was yet another devastating touch point in the ongoing conversation about race and living-while-black in America that needed to be witnessed.
So I watched it already knowing what was to come. The video showed several teenagers join in what has become a time honored tradition of celebrating their last day of school with boisterous, classic American abandon, carefree joy, and even innocent teenage rebellion – the kind of cultural nostalgia that is commemorated time and time again in films – think Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Summer School, I Know What you Did Last Summer, Dazed and Confused, even Dirty Dancing.
Except, this summer pool party involved black teenagers, which somehow gave permission to conceptually transform this very American tradition of adolescent revelry into a very different kind of story — something criminal or unwanted, a raucous “mob” even. According to those attending the party (and another video that indicates this as well), chaos emerged after several of the teens had been taunted by racial epithets. Soon after, a law enforcement officer barreled in, shouting endless expletives, drawing his gun, and throwing a 14-year-old girl to the ground while dragging her hair.
Just another story of an American suburban teenage pool party on the last day of school.
Early Tuesday morning was also my daughter Safa’s classroom potluck marking the end of second grade. As I blinked back the she-is-such-a-big-girl tears, Safa proudly pointed out the thorax on a poster diagram of an ant’s body on the classroom wall. She bounced along to show me another colorful poster of the multiplication tables, casually telling me the scientific name of three different kinds of butterflies as we walked by the classroom butterfly pen on our way to the poster.
One of Safa’s teachers walked over to me and choked back her own tears as she reminded me again what a pleasure it had been to have had my daughter in the classroom this year. Safa was, in the teacher’s words, “So smart, so loved and well-liked by all the children, a social butterfly, really.” What is otherwise likely to be a common description of a second grader, utterly blew my mind as I reflected upon what my eight-year-old daughter has had to absorb and process in the past couple of years.
The past couple years have been full of immense turbulence for my children and me. We’ve survived a lot together that on the public face of it includes losing their father entirely to less than ceremonial circumstances. Just a few years prior, our family was a seemingly perfect picture of the American dream–both, my now-ex-husband and I, had exciting careers and three beautiful children. The aforementioned turbulence began when my ex-husband was indicted on federal corruption charges and then subsequently fled the country while awaiting sentencing. My children and I were left behind with a highly public mess that included financial and entire-life upheaval. Couple that with being a single parent in communities where the realities that single parents face are still largely and intentionally left invisible, and suffice it to say that my children and I had seen better days.
As I looked around the classroom one last time, I thought of all the reasons my daughter was able to stand there and tell me about an ant’s body parts. I was floored by her instinct to engage instead of withdraw and her ability to come back, day after day, to learn, to produce, and to connect with beauty.
Later that night, I joined many across the nation in watching the riveting Game 2 of the NBA finals. As a proud native Ohioan, this game was an absolute joy to watch. Lebron James, the prodigal Midwestern son returned home to lead his team, his city, and the entire state of Ohio to believe that even Cleveland – even this bruised, institutionally battered, afflicted, all too often invisible underdog of a city, the city that Tamer Rice walked and was murdered in, a city that has seen its better days come and go and go yet again — could attain moments of glory through the story of a one night, one game, one championship.
Knowing that it could all easily evaporate by the next morning, there was something glorious in the Cleveland air on Tuesday night. And every single Ohioan who has ever felt unseen, overlooked, disappointed, discouraged and uncertain of what the future could possibly hold for someone from the rustbelt of Ohio, could feel it too.
Perhaps even more remarkably, the return of Lebron James to Cleveland is not just a story of his own star’s continued rise. What marks James as mythic in Ohio is that he’s quietly led others on the team into playing guerilla style championship basketball. On Tuesday, the rest of the Cavaliers were not just better than the expectations of others; someone led them to believe that despite their seemingly most average of qualities, they belonged in the legions of the best.
Grit comes in handy. Belief can get you far. Empathy widens experience. Stories heal. Having the spunk to see people as more than they are raises them out of invisibility and gives them an indication that they belong to something bigger — that they are not just resilient, but also myth makers.
Everyone loves a good comeback story. Write that off as just another mythic sports-related trope but you and I, we, need good comeback stories wherever we can get them. People need stories of redemption. People need stories that depict the beauty of pursuing glory against all odds, even if it only lasts for moments, even if no one else will ever see or notice.
As Tuesday waned into late night, exhaustion hit. A thought kept repeating itself in my mind, “Tell me more comeback stories. I need more comeback stories.” I thought about the mother of that young 14-year-old girl in McKinney, Texas. What will this young girl’s comeback story be? Tell me that her mother will in a year or two’s time look back and marvel at her daughter’s resilience and imagination. The young girl would stand for strength despite her brutal treatment that last day of school in 2015, when a police officer threw her to the ground, pulled her by her hair, and straddled her while screaming at her for doing nothing other than being an American teenager at a summer party.
Tell me that America’s best comeback story hasn’t even been written yet. Tell me that the people who live in America’s cities are so much more than we otherwise might have imagined them to be. Tell me the stories of little girls who demand much from each of us, who demand for us to imagine something that isn’t just better but that is glorious.
America needs its guerilla comeback stories now more than ever. There are championships to be won, cities to be inspired, black holes to be found, scientific theories to be broken and revised, great books to be written, and so many butterflies to be named.
My daughter was extra huggy Tuesday morning. Even huggier than her usual huggy self. As I hugged her and her embrace tightened, I realized that she knows, too. She knows we’ve been through a lot. We took the picture we always take at the start and end of every school year of her standing next to her classroom door. She immediately demanded to see the pictures and said, “Mama, will you share these with everyone? They will make Nano, Nana, Mamu, Mami and everyone so happy.”
As I headed out from her potluck that morning, my daughter ran out into the hall after me and said, “One more hug, Mama?” “Yes, my lovely, one more hug.”
As the Executive Director of Arete at the University of Chicago, Samar Kaukab works to launch complex initiatives that enhance UChicago’s research enterprise. She has three children and two step-children.