The Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev both went to high school, is not a private school and it’s not an elite school. What makes Rindge special, apart from the fact that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon went there (and e. e. cummings long before them), is that it is the only public high school in Cambridge, what could be the most tolerant and accepting place imaginable for two Chechen boys looking to find their place in the world. Tamerlan, the older brother, cycled through only briefly. He was an athlete, but also played in the jazz ensemble, a smiling, benign presence out of the boxing ring. Dzhokhar, six years younger and a wrestler, was more social and, by all accounts, assimilated into American culture. “He wasn’t them,” one parent told a reporter last week. “He was us. He was Cambridge.”
When the full story of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar is written, it will, at least to some extent, be about a tortured search for identity—an immigrant family’s struggle for purpose and meaning. But what makes that story all the more incredible is that for their formative teenage years, the brothers grew up where they did, in possibly the least plausible breeding ground for anti-American resentment.
There is the people’s republic of Massachusetts, and then there is conservative, de facto segregated lace-curtain Boston within it, and then there’s the still more exceptional nation of Cambridge, awash with Ph.D.’s and worldly, upwardly mobile intellectuals, living together in the most cultured, highest-I.Q. municipality in all of Greater Boston. The richest people in Cambridge have a number of private schools to choose from, but everyone else is welcome at Rindge.
There was nothing unusual about two boys from a Chechen family roaming the halls of Rindge. In the context of Cambridge, and this school in particular, they weren’t even considered foreigners.
Rindge is believed to be one of the most ethnically diverse high schools in the country. That diversity is a badge of honor, for the school and the city. “About ten years ago,” one old resident says, “Cambridge changed the zoning so you don’t go to your neighborhood school, because they want every school to look like the city of Cambridge.” They also rejiggered the “house system” at Rindge, a sort of school-within-a-school, to make sure that diversity ran all through the school. Today, some kids speak Creole in the hallways, some girls wear head scarves, and no one thinks twice. “I knew students who were from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, South Korea, China, Ethiopia, as well as some from France and Germany,” says Charlotte Petty, who overlapped with Dzhokhar. “I remember students celebrating Haitian flag day. I remember the Haitian cooking club selling food at lunch.”
White kids make up about a third of the student body, and blacks slightly more. “You wouldn’t find as much economic diversity there as you would at, say, Boston Latin,” says Charlotte’s older brother, Dan, who remembers Tamerlan as a goofy, gentle presence in the halls. Of course, all high schools have cliques. The smart kids were all tracked together, as they are at a lot of schools, only mixing with the general population for electives and homeroom. Rindge’s cliques seemed to resist ethnic lines. Dzhokhar wrestled on the school team for three years and was captain for two. His coach called him “one of the most well-adjusted kids on the team,” getting along with all the different subgroups.
Rindge’s proximity to Harvard lends it no special status, except maybe in its overrepresentation of Harvard volunteer SAT tutors and the Harvard student teachers cycling through to do their practicum. What Rindge has instead is a distinct pride of place. “The amount of cultural capital of growing up in Cambridge is so high,” Dan says. “And the level of appreciation of other cultures is also quite high, which is why I was so shocked. It didn’t surprise me that someone was capable of doing heinous things. But the fact that they came from Cambridge shocked me.”
A few years ago, when the school needed a motto, the principal asked the student body to come up with three words to describe what the school was. Over months, students were given time in homeroom to suggest and discuss the choices. Out of hundreds of words, the winning three were “opportunity,” “diversity,” and “respect.”