Rachel: Memory and Commitment
Lin Nelson and Anne Fischel
We were Rachel’s teachers in Local Knowledge, an interdisciplinary, full time program that carried through the academic year 2001-2002. When Rachel was killed in Gaza on March 16, 2003, we, like so many others, had to come to terms with the shocking reality of a promising life cut short. We are grateful to her mother, Cindy, who said, “Parents can be awakened by their children,” to her father, Craig and sister Sarah, and to the staff of the Rachel Corrie Foundation who have honored Rachel’s commitment to justice for Palestinians, her love of writing and expressive art, her focus on community connection, and her search for ways to engage in social justice work with her neighbors.
To us, Rachel was a humble and gentle person; she did not see herself as “larger than life”, much less a hero or martyr in the making. In 2003 we wrote, “We choose to remember her learning and growing, finding her voice, testing out her capabilities and figuring out what mattered to her. We remember her in the context in which we knew her best—as part of a learning community of students with whom we worked during the academic year 2001-2002. At her 2003 memorial those students shared some of their memories:
We are reminded of the lessons we shared and poked and prodded with Rachel. So many words and ideas, so many acts and attempts at discovering our own ability to act, and collaborate, and build and discuss.
One of the first things we noticed about Rachel when she joined Local Knowledge was her ability to observe and reflect. She was quiet, serious, her forehead often creased in wrinkles. We got to know her through her writings, which were distinctive in their searching analysis, intensity and humor. With one eye on regional history and the other on the global present, Rachel’s work cultivated a sense of the injustice of lives forgotten or taken for granted, communities struggling for their place and voice, people working against great odds to create a life for themselves. She wrote about her home community:
Studying the history of this area roots me. It makes me more conscious of the land and more conscious of myself and of the people around me as actors in history…We’ve certainly waded in the same water and wandered on the same beaches as some very brave people.
Remembering Rachel is not so much a set of commemorative moments as it is a continual, ongoing journey. Our experiences with Rachel, in the classroom, at the awful moment of her death, and throughout the last 15 years raise fundamental questions about the rewards and perils of engaged learning. How can we create supportive learning moments and journeys that keep students safe, while at the same time making the classroom porous and permeable to the world? What are the implications and potential consequences of encouraging students to actualize their learning in the communities they are a part of, or seeking to become part of? How do we serve as guides and witnesses to our students as they learn to contribute their skills and vision to a troubled world that sorely needs them?
These are some of the questions we raised in 2003. Then, as now, they are not questions with ready answers. One of the decisions we made was to join our voices to Rachel’s and to those of her classmates in a program we shaped together. One of the underlying values of the program was a shared belief that experience and knowledge are connected, and that they confer responsibilities. Rachel wrote of the importance of this connection:
We live in a curious geography…we have instantaneous access to products, information and currency from anywhere on earth. On the other hand, we are often separated from the consequences of our actions by thousands of miles, strings of subcontracts…and a long parade of…ATM machines. This fracture deserves further examination. Its relationship to the way we form knowledge, and how we act on that knowledge is relevant to …our ability to function in a democracy.
In Local Knowledge students started community gardens, volunteered in food banks, participated in environmental movements, made films about homelessness, started a local peace organization, and much more. The rich variety of the work was—and is—united by their understanding that colleges are not outside the struggles communities are engaged in. This has never meant that all students are expected to participate in political activism, but rather that students are supported to seriously consider how their sense of their work, as it evolves, coexists with and interacts with a world that needs them. In turn, students and their faculty have much to learn from the broader community about resilience, survival and sustainable solutions to profoundly vexing problems. Rachel’s peers understood the relationship between her work and theirs, a relationship they embraced in the painful days following her death.
She was willing to sacrifice everything she had been taught by popular culture to cherish – comfort, blind faith, complacency – and elevate herself to a place of transformation and compassion. She died, but we still have each other, the impact of her presence and commitment, the lessons we shared, and so much work to do.
Today, 15 years later, we remember Rachel for her passion, her quiet fire, her determination. She was not a tower of certainty, of unmovable thinking. She was a seeker, who asked a lot of questions, who asked a lot of herself and who knew there is always more to learn, more to question.
In her readings, writings, conversations and daily actions, she was on “the search.” For us, Rachel is less of a symbol and more of a flickering beacon, a gesture to the rest of us to keep pressing on with our efforts. She was both courageous and careful. When learning about her home-community, she realized how much she had not seen, so she pushed to learn more. When learning about Palestine, she was a respectful visitor and student of the people who hosted her. Hers was a learning-life; she pressed beyond the borders of her experience to understand how others, in other parts of the world, struggled and persisted. Reflecting the perspective and necessity of a learning community that began in the throes of 9-11, she looked close to home and far away, always figuring out connections, the alternative to the rhetoric of “us or them.” In Gaza she used her much-vaunted privilege to understand others and tell the story of her learning through articulate, determined and grave messages that urged others to feel connected—and to continue to learn.
We remember Rachel’s youth and insight, her wisdom, and determined search for a better way. 15 years later we often wonder: what would she be learning and saying now in a landscape where so much has changed, yet where so much remains to be done? In Palestine she was deeply connected to the youth, the children who have been denied so much, who hunger for justice. Today, she would no doubt champion the young Florida students who are speaking out against gun violence, demanding that it be challenged and prevented. She would embrace the courage of young people protesting police violence in Black communities, and the undocumented youth who are bravely advocating for immigrants rights and political/social inclusion. Young people speaking-their-minds was vital to Rachel and to her legacy.
We learned from Rachel that parents can be awakened by their children, and teachers can be re-awakened by their students. That is part of the legacy we live out as we remember Rachel. We try to be attentive to what might be forgotten, overlooked or excluded. We remember how important it is to speak out, as Rachel did, to take a stand, as Rachel did, and to keep observing and asking questions. We look for connection and seek out opportunities for engagement. And we continue to be inspired by the words of her friends-in-learning, who embraced her challenge to do right by her world.
Learn and speak, turn to each other and organize, right where your community needs it most. This is how to honor the humility of [her] death, not with banners and songs and slogans, but with strength, intelligence and critical compassion…she was extraordinary and ordinary; she cared about the world and threw herself into it, she was one of us.