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Seeing the lights in Claremont

by John Pixley

She said she had to buy more lights. Her family had gotten their Christmas tree, and it turned out that one of their strands of lights was not working. So she had to go out and buy a new string of lights to put on the tree.

That’s what we always do. Every year, it seems, we get out the Christmas lights and plug them in, excited to see them glow and sparkle, and at least one strand or part of a strand doesn’t go on. It was working last year, but now, suddenly, for some reason that nobody knows, no glow, no sparkle, nothing. There is usually a quick trip to the store to get more lights.

Because we can’t not have lights. Because we need all the lights we can get. We need all the lights we can get when it has gotten dark and cold and when everything out there is not so far away.

We need all the lights we can get when Claremont is in the headlines and live on the 11 p.m. news because of unrest. The University of Missouri and Yale University and other colleges, most far away in other states, aren’t the only schools with student protests and furor over a lack of diversity on campus. Racial strife isn’t just an issue in other cities and other states, out there, far away. Not when students at Claremont McKenna College protest, with one going on a hunger strike, saying that black and other minority students don’t feel welcome and included on the campus and the dean of students resigns. And not when the protesting students subsequently received threats and felt compelled to stay off campus, missing classes.

When the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11 and the deadliest mass shooting since the rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, three years ago, has taken place, leaving 14 dead and 21 injured, half an hour away in San Bernardino, we certainly need all the lights we can get.

That the December 2 attack took place at a training and holiday potluck for county health workers in a rented room at a services center for the developmentally disabled and that the Muslim married couple who carried it out were part of the community—the husband was a county health worker—and were inspired by radical Islamic State extremists and turned out to have an arsenal of high-power guns, ammunition and bombs in their Redlands house and rented sports utility vehicle is the stuff of dark, chilling nightmares.

This was a most deadly attack that could have happened anywhere—not just in iconic or resonant big-city places like New York City and Paris—and it happened a short drive away, just a dozen or two exits down the freeway. (Who knew that San Bernardino and Paris, not Perris, would constantly be mentioned in the same sentence—and for this reason!)

As story after story comes out, revealing horrific details and also plenty of injustices and outrage, amid all the bright red and green and silver and gold ads for holiday gifts and accessories, we sure do all the lights we can get.

In Claremont, there are lights. Lights we can see, shining in the dark and providing some warmth in the chill now closing in on us.  We see the lights shining in the way Claremont is taking in and embracing the Kanjou and the Wawieh families, who recently fled after their homes and lives were destroyed in war-ravaged Syria. Both families have been enrolled in ESL classes at the Claremont Adult School, and the Wawieh children are attending Claremont High School and Mountain View Elementary School. Fouad Wawieh and his family have been living at a motel in Pomona, as seen in a recent front-page feature in the Los Angeles Times, but will soon receive housing through the Claremont Interfaith Council (CIC).

“This is really something we cherish a lot, as part of this community, to have the support and level of encouragement from all faiths in support of these families,” said CIC President Bassam Badwan at a meeting at the Islamic Center of Claremont in Pomona.

This sentiment was echoed by Congresswoman Norma Torres, noting that she was a “little girl that came to the US [who] would have never imagined herself as a member of the US House of Representatives.” As she said at the meeting, “This is…a community that embraces people when they want to come to the US. They want to participate in our culture, and they want to live in peace like the rest of us.”

The lights shine bright here when LaVerne Cox speaks at CMC, closing out the fall series of talks at the Athenaeum. The actress, best known for her role on Orange is the New Black, spoke about the challenges of being black and a transgender woman. There have been plenty of hardships in her life, being an outsider in her black community and in terms of gender, yes, but her confidence and flair made it clear that she is more than a survivor.

Ms. Cox’s appearance two weeks ago was no doubt scheduled months in advance, but her message that anyone and everyone can thrive and be their true selves in their community was all the more appropriate as the semester was ending.

The lights shining here were also seen as the gutsy Krista Carson Elhai and her fearless Claremont High School theater students put on The Laramie Project this month. The play by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project is based on interviews with the citizens of Laramie, Wyoming, where in October of 1998, Mathew Shepard, an openly gay college student, was beaten and left for dead, tied up on a fence in the cold, isolated rural area.

No, this wasn’t a cheery holiday show, and it dealt with mature topics with mature language, but it showed the importance of understanding and compassion, of everyone being heard, of the notion of “live and let live” that the Laramie citizens take pride in. The students brought much feeling to this message, perhaps more so than in other productions I’ve seen of the play. Even more remarkable is that this wasn’t the first time Ms. Elhai directed the play at the high school; I saw it there not too long after it was first produced.

We certainly see the lights in teachers like Ms. Elhai who have brought out the best in us—teachers like Rosemary Adam, who taught English and creative writing at the high school and who died last month. There has been a remarkable amount of remembrance of “Madam Adam” (she delighted in pointing out that this was a palindrome) in these pages. I’ll just say they’re all true.

I knew I was in for a treat even before I had her for both Manuscript Writing for Publication and Short Story and Poetry when I first went to Claremon High.  My sister talked about her standing in front of the class and declaring in that husky, boom-boom voice, “You will write!” I loved the way she trusted and pushed me, even though I was a mystery in my wheelchair and with my difficult speech. I went on to take other classes from her, including creative writing through the adult school after graduating from college. Still later, she encouraged me to keep trying when I was in a rough patch.

That’s still good teaching today, as we keep our lights, all the lights we can get, shining in the dark.

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