Chemical Bonds

Neema Avashia

In India, during his rural medicine rotation in the late 1960s, my father lived in a village terrorized by rabid dogs. They traveled in packs, chasing children, biting bicyclists, infecting the villagers with rabies. These villagers became paranoid, delirious, and hydrophobic, deteriorated into a comatose state, and then died, in the span of just a few weeks.

There was no money for vaccines, so my father purchased arsenic with his own meager savings. Mixed it with milk. Poured the poison into stainless steel bowls and placed the bowls around the village, knowing the rabid dogs would hungrily lap up the milk. For weeks afterward, the bodies of dead dogs littered the streets, but the patients in the waiting room at my father’s clinic no longer foamed at the mouth.

In my father’s moral calculus, the lives of humans are always worth more than the lives of animals. And what counts as poison for some is inoculation for the many.

This is the worldview of a physician employed by a chemical plant for over thirty years: DDT kills mosquitoes, preventing the spread of debilitating diseases like malaria, dengue, and chikungunya. Asbestos stops the spread of fire in school buildings, hospitals, and homes. Methyl isocyanate kills insects, allowing crops to flourish. Chemicals prevent illness. Chemicals spur our nourishment. Chemicals save lives.

Any accidents that happen are simply that—accidents. And no accident outweighs the benefits that chemicals confer. For my immigrant father, raised in poverty in the developing world, chemicals were a godsend, both in their concrete use, and in the employment they provided him.

This is the bedtime story that my father told me every night when I was a child. This is the story I believed well into adulthood, until, all at once, I didn’t.

• •

After medical school, my father immigrated to the United States in 1969, first settling in Queens for his residency in occupational medicine, and then, four years later, taking a job at the Union Carbide plant in Institute, West Virginia. I cannot count the number of times in my life I have been asked the question, “Why West Virginia?” by disbelieving Americans who can’t envision West Virginia as a state with any amount of diversity. But at the time, Indian immigrants did not have extensive options. They most often found work in the places where privileged Americans would not venture, in the midst of either urban or rural poverty.

Put simply, my father needed a job. West Virginia was closer than Seadrift, Texas, his other option. And on their first visit, my parents found the lush greenery and mountains of the Mountain State, so different from dry and dusty India, deeply alluring.

They moved into a three bedroom, two and a half bathroom, two-story house on a street called Pamela Circle, situated in a planned development called West Gate. West Gate was one of many such developments in the bedroom community of Cross Lanes, built specifically to house the managerial workers of the chemical industry. Add two kids, a fenced-in yard with a giant garden, a sky-blue Dodge Dart, and a growing bank account, and all of the needed ingredients for the American Dream suddenly fell into place for my family. Thanks, in no small part, to Union Carbide.

“Doc,” as most West Virginians quickly dubbed my dad, was the most respected man in the neighborhood growing up: hot-tempered, for sure, but also educated, generous, and neighborly. The kind of man who gave flu shots to the family and the neighbors, then drove around town administering them to the grocer, the tire shop guys, and the auto mechanic;  who conducted physical exams for all of the kids on the street so that families wouldn’t have to pay to see their primary care physician. The kind of man who would bring back a suitcase full of prescription medicine from India, because it was available cheap and without prescription, and give it to the people in our community who needed it most. He sought, at every turn, to make himself useful, both because that was how he was raised, and because usefulness is the ultimate survival strategy for immigrants in America.

Our neighbors responded in turn, always at the ready when the garden needed to be rototilled, or the car needed an oil change, or my sister and I needed to learn a skill that my immigrant parents were not prepared to teach—like driving, or shooting hoops, or using power tools.

My father’s ethics were not typical, and certainly would have been frowned upon by the medical establishment, but at the time, I understood them as the ethics of place: being a good neighbor, and by extension, a good person, meant giving one-hundred percent of what you had to the community where you lived. The “rules” mattered less than the impact of your actions.

This ethic of place followed me into my professional life as a teacher. I have taught at my school for fifteen years and am as firmly rooted there as I was on Pamela Circle. Many of my current students are the third or fourth sibling in families whom I’ve been teaching since 2003. Where my dad attended every wedding, anniversary celebration, and funeral of people who worked at the chemical plant, I attend the quinceaneras, graduation cookouts, and, tragically, funerals, of former students on a regular basis. I am the writer of recommendation letters, the reference on job applications, the zero-percent interest moneylender, the advisor on job decisions, for hundreds of young people across the city of Boston. This does not feel optional for me. It feels like the way I am supposed to do my job, because that is how my father did his job.

• •

In the early morning hours of December 3, 1984, my father received a panicked phone call from a high-powered executive at the corporate headquarters of the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), the chemical plant where he was employed as the company doctor. Thirty tons of toxic methyl isocyanate had leaked from the Carbide compound in Bhopal, India, killing between four thousand and fifteen thousand people, and severely burning and blinding thousands more, most of whom used the solid brick wall of the plant compound as a firm backing for their otherwise flimsy tin and plastic shanties. UCC needed to send a crisis team to India. They wanted my Indian father to be part of their otherwise white team.

I think of my father, aged thirty-nine, the same age I am now. Two young children, a mortgage, parents and siblings to financially support in India, and a keen sense of being the brown-skinned foreigner with the funny accent trying desperately to assimilate into working-class Appalachian culture. What would he have lost if he said no? What would he gain by saying yes?

My father swallowed the indignity of being the token, went to Bhopal, acted as the face of Union Carbide in front of the global media and the Indian government. In the midst of thousands of his burned, blinded countrymen, in the midst of bodies stacked in the streets as dogs had once been in that village long ago, he sided with the company that signed his paycheck over the country of his birth. He embraced chemicals as the path to security and success, for himself, and for his family. He has held chemicals in that embrace ever since, never failing to come to their defense.

• •

For the first twelve years of my teaching career, my approach to the work only merited accolades. I taught a history methods course for student teachers to prepare them to work in the Boston Public Schools. I wrote the civics curriculum for the entire school district and ran professional development sessions training other teachers in how to use it. My classroom, with its clothesline of brightly-colored T-shirts emblazoned with radical protest slogans, became a site for new teachers to observe as they honed their craft. In 2013, the school district recognized me as one of Boston’s Educators of the Year.

The following year, the district selected me, along with only two other teachers, to serve as members of the new superintendent’s transition team, tasked with crafting a new vision for the work of the Boston Public Schools. I felt my voice, and my influence, growing. Friends in other schools often described feeling like they were “widgets”—unseen and unknown by a district that viewed them as numbers, rather than humans. I understood their experience, but couldn’t relate. I wasn’t a widget, I thought.

Then, in 2016, the school district released budget proposals for individual schools, and we learned that the McCormack faced over one million dollars in budget cuts. We stood to lose half of our arts department, much-needed special education teachers, and some of our strongest teachers of academic content. Our staff rallied, went to budget hearings, and gave passionate testimony explaining the impact of such deep cuts on our school. Still, the budget proposal remained unchanged.

Frightened by the depth of the cuts, and certain that they foretold the approaching death of our school community, I reached out to a local newspaper and asked them to do a story. The Bay State Banner printed a piece about the impact of budget cuts, with a giant picture of my face running on the front page.

The day after the piece dropped, my awkward rookie principal called me into his office after school. He’d been contacted by his bosses, who had asked him to deliver a message: “All communication with media needs to be cleared through BPS communications.”

What happened next is unclear. Did he fumble his words? Did I mishear him? I could swear that he said, “Otherwise, you risk losing your job.”

He claims he said, “Otherwise, I could risk losing my job.”

I stared at him, flabbergasted. “I can’t lose my job for speaking to the press,” I said, the civics teacher in me growing more outraged by the moment. “Freedom of speech is protected for public school employees. There was a whole Supreme Court case about it in 1968.”

He shrugged helplessly. “I’m just passing on the message I was given.”

I left his office and called our union organizer. “I just got told to stop speaking to media without permission from BPS or I will lose my job,” I told her.

The next morning, the union president wrote a blurb in our e-newsletter describing the incident, stridently clarifying the free speech rights of public school teachers. By midday, the Boston Globe had posted a story with the headline, “Union Accuses Boston School Department of Trying to Silence Teachers.”

That afternoon, the superintendent of the Boston Public Schools called me on my commute home, asking, “Couldn’t you have resolved this internally? Why did you feel the need to take it public?”

The impact mattered more than the rules. This is what I had grown up believing. Now I was being told that following the rules of silence and subordination mattered more than protecting the health of my community.

“I did try to resolve it internally,” I told him. “We went to you. We went to the school committee. We begged you to listen, and you didn’t change anything. So then we took it public.”

After this, I was no longer the favored teacher of the establishment. I transformed into someone new, someone different: someone feared for my ability to create shame among district leadership. And fear made people listen in a different way. When I e-mailed the superintendent with a concern, he responded immediately. I got pulled into meetings with higher-ups on a regular basis regarding issues ranging from youth violence to school police cooperation with ICE. The district’s strategy for reining me in was to pull me closer, rather than push me away.

The school district did not ultimately restore our funds, but the experience taught me something my father had been unable to: sometimes, acting ethically on behalf of my community requires fighting against, rather than alongside, my employer.

• •

My dad and I do not talk about our family’s tangled history with chemicals. In truth, we don’t talk much at all about topics that fall outside the bounds of the following three topics: financial investments, dead and dying West Virginian loved ones, and the weather in Texas where he now lives.

Every time I have written about him, I’ve been asked in workshop to include scenes between us. But I don’t see my father in scene. I see him in monologue: my dad speaking, my listening, and then his abruptly hanging up the phone or leaving the room when he tires of talking. Some of this is generational, some of it is gendered, some of it is cultural, but the notion of my father talking with me about his history or his beliefs is simply something I haven’t experienced. He has talked at me, and I can summarize those ideas deftly, but scene eludes me. Scene implies an exchange of ideas, and there is no exchange between my father and me. He has his ideas, I have mine. Never the twain shall meet.

Searching for ways to bring my father’s voice in this piece, I turned to the archives of the Charleston Gazette, the main newspaper for our community in West Virginia. I found a piece written by my father in 2015. Twelve years after leaving the valley, he too, still mulls on this history. The piece, titled “Remembering a Better West Virginia,” was published on the seventieth anniversary of the end of WWII, and is an amalgam of all of the snippets my father has repeated to me time and time again.

During the war chemical companies were asked by our elected government to make goods needed for the war effort. At the end of the war they could have laid off everybody. But instead, they re-purposed these chemical facilities to make ingredients that make latex paint, crayons, detergents, soaps, and shampoos. They made rubber additives that made tires and rubber belts last longer and made driving safer. They made swimming pools cleaner and chemicals that farmers and the home gardeners could safely use to produce the crops that fed the world. . . .

A couple of dozen cases of Mesothelioma from asbestos occurred, but balance that against hundreds of people who did not get burns from hot processes and leaks that did not occur from asbestos gaskets. In those days, safer substitutes were not yet invented. . . .

Books have been written on workplace tragedies. But I could easily write a book on how a Clay County kid came to Charleston, got a job to collect samples from production units on bicycle and quickly delivered them to a lab for analysis. This kid soon realized the path to upward mobility was education. He took classes at Morris Harvey College to get his degree to become a chemist, finally becoming the manager for environmental affairs. He retired and became an industry consultant for several more years. And this story was repeated by many.

Today, Kanawha Valley’s chemical industry is a minuscule shadow of the chemical center of the world it billed itself to be back then.The chemical workers were able to afford houses and usually two cars, send their children to colleges in West Virginia, who in turn came back as doctors, engineers and lawyers. Every year there were summer jobs galore. Industry paid property taxes and state government did not require across the board cuts, and charities in town from symphony to Salvation Army and local church’s collection plates met their needs. Car dealers and real estate agents were happy to see the customer traffic every other year when the Carbide savings plan paid out. At Carbide camps, children of the managers played with the children of operators for $25 week. Even Bernie Sanders can support that.

How did we get in this situation?

West Virginia politicians did next to nothing when a small number of lawyers relentlessly attacked industry, thinking that industry would not go away. Multiple class actions and other litigation only helped defense and plaintiff lawyers…. Big chemical giants are gone, replaced by the likes of Freedom Industries. Shelter-in-place for a few hours was nothing compared to what the newcomers have done. The chemical industry in the valley is on its last leg. There is not enough volume left to support cost-effective production. The future is bleak for the industry, and with little new industry coming in, I fear for the Kanawha Valley as well.

The chemical industry wasn’t perfect, by far. But one has to look at the balance of good and bad. I know this piece will echo the sentiments of many Valley residents.

My father is something of an absolutist when it comes to chemicals, rejecting litigation as a means to greater safety and regulation, in much the same way that I can be an absolutist when it comes to education. No doubt he wishes I had a more nuanced view of charter schools and standardized testing, both of which I reject.

In turn, I, too, wish for him to possess more nuance. To acknowledge, for once, that simply boiling the water will not cleanse the Elk River of the ten thousand gallons of crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (a chemical foam used to wash coal) that Freedom Industries poured into it in 2014. That no amount of heat could strip the contaminated water of its vomit-inducing, liver- and kidney-damaging properties. I wish he would explain why he thought it was a good idea to spray my head with the pesticide Sevin when I came home from school with lice in second grade. I want to know why we kept eating vegetables from our garden when the Carbide plant in Institute leaked methyl isocyanate into the West Virginia air in 1985, just six months after Bhopal. Even after government officials declared that people should not eat home-grown produce because of its exposure to contaminants, we had tomatoes in our salad every night.

• •

In October of 2018, representatives of the Boston Public Schools convened a meeting with our staff and told us that our school would be closing after the 2019-2020 school year. That our students would be sent to an underperforming school a mile away—a high school already struggling to serve its existing students, without the added complication of middle schoolers. That our school building would be renovated and given over to another school. That “there was no plan” for our staff. We would need to find other work as best we could.

In other words, we were all being evicted. Without cause. Without a plan for mitigating the impacts of closure.

In my rage over the blatant lack of respect for the students and staff at my school, I turned to Twitter and exposed the fallacies in the district’s plan. I stood up at school committee meetings and gave history lessons about what has happened when underperforming schools have been asked to take on more students, adding complexity to their already full plates. I purchased twenty copies of Eve Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side and theatrically assigned required reading to the school committee members—demanding that they learn about the impact of school closures on the students of Chicago before voting to enact similar pain on the children of Boston. I wrapped myself in the First Amendment and spoke to every journalist who expressed even the slightest interest in telling the story of how wrongheaded, how racist, this school closure process was.

If my father had been the epitome of the company man for Union Carbide, I was quickly becoming his opposite. The Norma Rae of the Boston Public Schools. The Ralph Nader of school closures. The very kind of person my father expressed exasperation with when I was growing up. My father did not suffer rabble-rousers gladly, and I was starting to be the loudest rabble-rouser in town.

“What do I have to lose?” I asked my partner, Laura, the night after the closure announcement. “They’ve already stated their intent to destroy my community and strip me of my job. What do I gain by staying silent?”

My initial fight-or-flight response after the announcement had been to consider quitting. Leaving the teaching profession altogether. If BPS didn’t value our community, then why should I continue to work for BPS? Laura allowed me to spin through the “flight” options without commenting.

Now, she smiled. “There’s the Neema I’ve been waiting for. The McCormack is your home. You don’t give up your home without a fight.”

I tweeted and spoke recklessly, but underneath my recklessness lay confidence and moral clarity. Confidence that I possessed a safety net: my own financial security, my professional relationships, and the generational wealth that my father’s loyalty to the chemical industry had made possible. Moral clarity about the fact that the district’s plan was harmful to young people and required serious modification.

Chemicals paved the road from my immigrant father’s mythologized arrival in the United States with eight dollars in his pocket to my citizen father’s seven-figure investment account. My father’s embrace of chemicals gave birth to my privilege. I am not confused about this fact.

I know I will continue to thrive if my school closes and I have to find another job. My undocumented students, my working-class students, my traumatized students, on the other hand, might not. The impact of school closures on academic performance, on dropout rates, on young people’s emotional well-being, is well documented and damning. When we disconnect young people from school communities, we separate them from second homes and second families. We remove their safety net, and then are surprised by their self-destructive and community-destroying behaviors. The conditions that adults create for young people ultimately shape who those young people end up becoming. My father had not spoken up for his countrymen because doing so would have put his family’s financial security at risk. This fact, and my own lack of financial peril, impelled me further to speak up for mine.

I picked up my father from the airport on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. He got into the car while I was in the middle of a phone call with an area journalist, updating her on the changes in the plan for my school. The Boston Public Schools has been walking their plan back in the face of our community’s onslaught. We are no longer being evicted, but rather, relocated during renovation. We will seek applications from high schools looking to merge with us, instead of our building being handed over to a high school while our community gets kicked to the curb. If a marriage is successfully arranged between our community and a prospective high school, we will return to our building together after it is renovated as a united seventh- to twelfth-grade high school. Slowly, painstakingly, we are making progress. Progress that would have been impossible had we not chosen to fight.

After I ended the call, my dad commented, “Don’t get too involved with all of this, Neema. You can’t control what they will end up doing.”

In a conversation with my mom earlier in the month, she echoed a similar sentiment. “Don’t let yourself get too stressed about this. There is nothing you can do.”

When my parents initially made these statements, I grew annoyed with both of them. Rather than supporting me, both sought, in their own ways, to quash my resistance. In the moment, I understood their comments as an effort to protect me from myself, and ultimately, from getting fired. Only later did I wonder, how often had they said these very words to each other as young Indian immigrants navigating all-white spaces in West Virginia? Toeing the company line had been their survival strategy; bucking it was mine. The distance between our experiences—theirs as first-generation immigrants navigating a world dominated by whiteness, mine as a natural-born citizen chafing against systemic racism—felt as vast as the eight thousand-mile flight from Mumbai to New York must have the first time my parents took that journey.

I once viewed my father’s ethics as the ethics of community. Now I wondered if, in fact, they had simply been the ethics of assimilation, or the ethics of survival.

• •

By 2001, the Union Carbide Corporation had been completely dismantled through a series of sell-offs and mergers that left it in shambles. Some pointed to NAFTA and outsourcing as the cause of Carbide’s demise. Others attributed the company’s downfall to increased environmental regulations and associated costs, making it difficult to turn a profit.

Of course, if you ever listened to his call-ins to talk radio under the pseudonym “Al,” you would know that my father blames the disappearance of Carbide from the Chemical Valley on short-sighted lawyers and litigious West Virginians, eager to make any money they could off the slightest whiff of chemicals in the air—a legacy of Bhopal.

My father believed in corporate benevolence. He trusted that his bosses, and their bosses, would ultimately make decisions that benefited employees and the community, and not just the bottom line. And maybe in the 1970s, when he was first introduced to corporate America, that was true. Maybe. Or maybe the corruption was just harder to see, because he did not have access to the rooms full of good ol’ boys where the backroom deals were being made.

I want to tell my father that everything he believes about the power of chemicals is true. But also, that DDT poisons the birds and the fish and the water, eventually finding its carcinogenic way into the very cellular structures of our bodies. Infinitesimal asbestos fibers, so easy to inhale, irritate the lung lining and make it difficult to breath, and are the only known cause of mesothelioma. Methyl isocyanate burns our eyes, our nostrils, our lungs, our skin, gives us nausea and blurred vision, kills us if we are close enough to the site of exposure. Chemicals are both the balm, and the poison.

I want to tell him things that he already knows, but refuses to say out loud. That companies and governments cannot be trusted to do what is right for civilians. That civilians will only achieve just ends when they speak up, and when they fight. That no matter how much we try, we will never be viewed as insiders in America. That we need to embrace our outsider status, and use it to fight.

My father outlasted the Carbide sell-offs until 2003, when he was given two options: leave the Chemical Valley, now depleted of its chemicals, or take an early retirement. Dad chose to leave and spent a few short years working for Bayer Crop Science in Kansas City before he was pushed into retirement there. Having no strong ties to Kansas City, my parents moved once again, this time to Austin, Texas, to be closer to my sister and her family.

My dad and I talk infrequently on the phone—mainly, he just comments in the background when I am on the phone with my mom. We see each other twice a year, if we are lucky. The lack of regular interaction, the rapid way in which my father’s sparse hair is graying, his once-agile body stiffening, the involuntary yelp he emits when standing up or sitting down, makes each interaction feel increasingly fraught. I am not brave enough to start a conversation whose end I cannot foresee, and whose impact I am certain will cause my father pain. My father chose us, our family, our future, over his own ethicality, in swearing allegiance to Carbide in 1984. At every juncture where chemicals have caused harm, he has chosen us again. Thus, I am indebted. I am implicated. My ethics, in the end, are not as dissimilar to his as I might wish them to be.

Even today, my dad reads the Charleston Gazette online each morning, scanning the obituaries for names of Carbiders he once worked with, then forwarding me those I knew and loved. He visits old colleagues in cities and towns where they have resettled all over the country. He remains the company man for a company that killed thousands and never fully owned up to the damage they caused. Union Carbide settled their lawsuits in India for a paltry $470 million—an average of less than $800 for each of the 592,000 people who filed claims. Warren Anderson, the chairman of the Union Carbide Corporation, a company once valued at over $10 billion, was declared a fugitive from justice by the Indian government and charged with manslaughter, but he was never extradited by the United States government. He died in 2014.

There is no Union Carbide Corporation left to hold responsible. There are no corporate bigwigs left with blood on their hands. There is only my Indian father, still storing Carbide jackets in his closet, and me, still using a thirty-year-old ice scraper emblazoned with the Carbide logo to remove ice from my windshield on winter mornings.

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