In September of 1995 one of my heroes, the Civil Rights attorney, William Kunstler, died. Over the course of fifty-year career Kunstler had defended, amongst others, Lenny Bruce, H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, the American Indian Movement, Abby Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and the rest of the Chicago 7, as well as “The Blind Sheik,” Omar Abdel Rahman, mastermind of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. Not all of his clients would make most top-ten lists of guys with whom you’d like to break bread, but Kunstler fought like a true warrior to provide Constitutional protections for all, even those – particularly those – whose beliefs flew in the face of public opinion. Because of an adherence to core values Kunstler was vilified. He spent his career being called a revolutionary, a terrorist sympathizer, a Red, and a defender of murderers and rapists.
His chosen path made life far more difficult than necessary. He could have had a successful, lucrative career navigating divorce settlements or hooking corporate clients up with other corporate clients, but somewhere along the line, he’d made an internal decision to fight for justice and by doing so, became something more than he’d been before. The world has been a lonelier place without his lantern shining into the darker recesses of our human abyss, but the lessons he carried abide.
There was a brief flutter of media attention in the days after his death, and on an afternoon during that particularly difficult year, after coming home from a day of teaching high school social studies in Brooklyn, I caught an interview with him somewhere up on the high end of the dial.
Kunstler was seated at his mess of a desk, papers strewn as wildly as his grey hair. His jacket and his jowls appeared to be in the final round of a grudge match to determine which could appear more naturally rumpled. To say the least, he didn’t look much like a specimen of human perfection, a fact that was highlighted by the statue of Michelangelo’s David that sat on a windowsill behind him.
The interviewer asked him about the statue and Kunstler proceeded to explain just why that particular piece of art might be the most important expression of human potential ever created by the hand of man. The interviewer appeared puzzled, so Kunstler gave a Biblical brief, somewhat bastardized below:
Goliath, General of the Philistines, had been marauding through the Middle East for years. He and his army would set upon new lands and demand slavery from the nations they encountered – promising death as reward for defiance. Kingdom after kingdom fell to his sword, until he came to the Valley of Elah and found the army of King Saul.
In Elah, Goliath didn’t order his minions to fall upon the encampment. Rather, for 40 days, the giant himself walked to the middle of the battlefield and taunted the Jews to send him just one hero. His offer was to dispense with all the unnecessary bloodbath if a champion would fight him man to man. Now, of course, Goliath had little fear in making the offer, as he stood six cubits and a span.
Saul addressed each of his best warriors, amongst them David’s older brothers, but none of them would take the challenge. Then, on the morning of the forty-first day, young David sauntered down the hill from where he’d been tending his father’s sheep and learned of the martial offer . . .
As he came to this point in the tale, Kunstler leaned closer to the interviewer, and noted that David was the smallest man of his village, a child. No one expected him to fight and he could have easily just turned around and headed back up the hill. Life for him wouldn’t have been much different regardless of the tyrant in charge. But, instead, David grabbed a couple of rocks from the stream, put one of them in his sling – and the rest, as they say, is mytho-history.
From the day I started teaching in Brooklyn, I always wondered how I’d react to the death of a student. Each year I had 340 kids on my roster, and I knew hundreds more from hanging out after school, running a Shakespeare Club and doing a stint as the college advisor. I was, and am, close friends with many of them. I got to know their lives and their families. It wasn’t unusual to find myself listening to children as they vented about their lives or just broke down in my office. They were teenagers, and as such they had to deal with all the horrors of cold and distant parents, devious and deceptive friends, angry and emotionally absent teachers. But they were also Brooklyn teenagers, so their traumas were magnified by living in a world of gangs, drugs, violence and the attendant madness. Living in that world, I knew death was in the numbers. Statistics said that someday I’d walk into school and learn that Dallas or Erinda or Daniel or Oleysa had killed themselves or had been dropped by a stray bullet from a deal gone sideways in their barrios.
Then it happened.
I heard about Bashir’s suicide from his best friend, Nathan. It was late August, and I’d just returned from a summer trip to Alaska. On the answering machine there was a three-day-old message with rambled directions to a funeral home given in a hauntingly vacant voice. I still have full access to the cold bitterness of my emotions by recalling the smell of the coffee I was brewing and remembering the sound my head made as it dropped leadenly onto the kitchen table.
Bashir? Please, God, not Bashir.
The year after Bashir’s suicide was the most difficult of my career. I needed a break and I was toying with the idea of just bagging it all and picking up a bartending gig for a while. From September to June, Bashir’s suicide was working on me deeply. It made me question myself, this world, everything. I didn’t know if I could handle another one, and statistics being statistics, more were coming down the pike. My friends and family, as well as my colleagues, were somewhat aware of the emotional shade I was struggling through, though I’m not sure they knew how seriously I was considering a career change. When the next summer break finally came, I felt, powerfully, that I needed to get to Italy. I needed to sit with The David for hours and have a long conversation about what it means to be a man in this world. As such, in July I found myself walking down the hallway of the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, in the rotunda ahead towered the masterpiece of all Western Art.
What Kunstler pointed out to the interviewer, I saw full force. Michelangelo knew something that his contemporaries did not about human nature. Every other famous representation of the story of David and Goliath depicts the consequences of the battle. Titian, Donatello, Rubens, Caravaggio, van Coxie, Verrocchio and a dozen others all depict David with his foot on the chest of the fallen Goliath, his severed head in hand. But to Michelangelo, to Kunstler and to me, as it turns out, the result of the battle is less important. What is far more compelling is the silent moment of reflection in which we choose to either engage with or disengage from the demons of this world and our own perceived limitations.
To be in the room with The David is to know the power of all those quiet moments of spiritual resolve and those aching moments spent on the edge of the abyss. Pictures can convey only a part of the majesty that Michelangelo found in Man during David’s act of self-transcendence. David was a boy. He was small of frame and little regarded by his tribe. He was as easily forgotten as a child in a Brooklyn closet with a jury-rigged noose, and yet Michelangelo captures him as he existed in his one moment of exalted choice, that one second of fearless potential long trapped inside his heart until its ineffable, deafening release from the mundanity of self-doubt and the blinding sadness of eyes cast to the earth for fear of failing the stars.
I spent hours in that room, often crying silently, often watching the arcing artistry of meaning shoot the gap between flesh, blood and stone as men and women gazed up and knew, precisely, that they were made of more than they ever knew. They, and I, also knew in those moments that, whether we wish it to be so or not, we are always circling close to that central point on the continuum of self: Doubt, Desperation or Transcendence.
The David is a hard piece of art to embrace fully. It means at once that you can be more than you are, but it also is unforgiving in its admonition that to be so is a difficult choice.
Over the centuries, many have missed what is arguably the most obvious lesson in Michelangelo’s instructive tableau: The David is depicted as the giant – far larger than even Goliath. He stands fully 14-feet tall, and rests on a pedestal two meters high. Even the biggest of men in his presence need to crane their necks to see his feet. To note the look of resolve in his level eyes, to witness the hollow of his neck, concave with inhalation, to see his carotid artery in pulse and to feel the weight of his pitcher’s stance, is to know that the artist was actually sculpting something fully hidden from the rest of the universe.
What he sculpted was uniquely human and quietly heroic. David, the child, could have walked up the hill and returned to his sheep. Kunstler could have lived his life, quietly and unremarkably as a corporate lawyer. But they didn’t. They chose to be brave, they chose to be bold. They chose to be men.
It pains me to tears to know that Bashir could have walked out of that closet, too. He could have unknotted the tie and harvested the energy of having stared into the burdensome pit. We don’t, as decent human beings, criticize our brothers and sisters for their weakness, as we know that we are comprised so significantly of the same. We know that none of us are expected to be more than our histories have made us. Yet, we also know that we can be. We allow our heads to bow in deference to the pain of this life, but we also all know the exaltation of lifting our eyes to the heavens.
As I stood in the shadow of The David, I remember wishing that Bashir could have been with me and knowing, somehow, that he wished he could, too. I reached out, silently and unnoticed, for his hand and felt both the profound emptiness of opportunities lost and the understanding that this world turns on silent moments, impossible dilemmas and individual choices to fight or to fall.
I do not blame Bashir for his choice, I just know that had he held on for a moment longer, a day longer, long enough to reach a phone or for Nathan to swing by and see what he was up to for the night, he might have passed through that darkness and risen to heights unseen since a shepherd boy walked down a hill with a stone and a sling.
Bashir, our whole lives are spent in the Valley of Elah. I only wish I’d taught you that lesson before you had to teach it to me.
In this story the names of the students and some personal details have been altered to respect their privacy.