Middle school teacher Jenny Chung was wounded by shrapnel in the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013.

Middle school teacher Jenny Chung was wounded by shrapnel in the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. 

Credit:

Jeb Sharp

One of the best pieces of advice Jenny Chung received after she was injured in the Boston Marathon bombings, was to avoid all media coverage of the attacks and their aftermath.

"I've gotten pretty good about being in a cave," she tells me.

It's more than two years later now. We happen to be talking the same week convicted bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev broke his silence and apologized to his victims at his sentencing hearing.

"I saw a headline. 'He Speaks.' I was like, 'Oh, he spoke?' I really have kind of holed myself off," Chung says.

Her strategy is not without irony. Chung, 37, teaches 8th grade social studies in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"It's hard because I have a requirement where students do a current events reading log and they have to report to me."

Marathon day

Chung was at the finish line on April 15, 2013. She and her friend Rekha Drew had come to cheer on a friend who was running the marathon. They'd gotten word the friend was a quarter mile away. Chung remembers getting ready to record video.

"The next thing I remember, I was on the ground," Chung says. "Rekha was saying "Jenny, Jenny, get up." I don't remember how I got to the ground. So we get up and pretty soon after that the second bomb went off so we heard that and I remember crouching down with her. We hear screaming. And they open up the barricades and they're saying, 'If you can walk, just go!"

Chung didn't know yet that she had been hit by shrapnel — almost certainly a piece of the pressure cooker used to make the first bomb — and that the metal fragment was lodged inside her chest, just two inches from her heart. She was more worried about Rekha, who was pregnant.

Luckily, Rekha's place wasn't far away, so they headed there on foot. Chung could tell something wasn't quite right. She remembers a feeling of whiplash. She noticed there was a tear in her down jacket but didn't think much of it.

"I looked down at my jacket and said, 'Oh, this is my favorite coat. The pillowing was coming out and I knew you couldn't sew it, so I was kind of upset."

Meanwhile, another friend, Matt Nelson, had been racing to meet up with the two women. He'd heard the explosions from a few blocks away and texted Chung, "What was that?" A minute later the answer came back. "A bomb."

He caught up with them both as they headed away from the chaos. Once they reached Rekha's house, Matt noticed something on the back of Chung's jacket. It was a piece of human flesh. The seriousness of the situation hit him. Then he noticed the tear in Chung's jacket, just above one of the pockets. He helped her take it off so they could check for injuries.

"That day was kind of cold," Chung says. "So I had a long sleeve shirt, a t-shirt, jeans and then a jacket."

Inside there was a blood-red tear in her shirt on the left side of her chest. Underneath was a deep wound. Now they knew they had to get to a hospital. They set out walking again, this time to Boston Medical Center, about a mile away.

After some initial delay while Matt pestered staff to pay attention to her, Chung was whisked off to a room for an examination and then sent for emergency x-rays. The shrapnel was clearly visible. Chung makes an oval between her thumbs and index fingers to give me an idea of the size and shape. "About the size of a Dorito," she emails me later.

As Chung waited for surgery to remove the shrapnel, the FBI arrived to gather evidence. They photographed everything, including the wound. Chung remembers feeling helpless as she watched them begin to collect her clothes.

"They took everything," she says. "I remember saying to Matt, 'take the belt off the jeans. That's my favorite belt!' And he's like, "I am not messing with a federal investigation.'"

"I still miss my belt," she says, laughing.

The aftermath

Jenny Chung has spent the past two-plus years healing quietly, out of the limelight. And yet in many ways, as a public school teacher in Cambridge, she finds herself at the heart of the story. She had students who knew the younger bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. She has colleagues who taught him. And she lives just down the street from the Tsarnaev family's old apartment.

"It's amazing to think about the impact," Chung says. "What happens when [the perpetrators] come from your community and you can't separate the 'us' and 'them.' They are us. What does that mean?"

She doesn't dwell on that question too much though.

"I try not to think about why did this happen, or ask these kinds of questions I can't really answer."

That deliberate decision to turn away from the horror may be partly what makes her resilient. When I spoke with her earlier this summer, she listed other things that helped her heal.

She went to therapy. She went to acupuncture every day for two months. She meditated. She surrounded herself with loving friends. As the first anniversary of the attacks approached, she trained for her first marathon.

"I had never run a marathon so that was actually very healing," she says. "Probably one of the most healing things was taking back the finish line. This whole notion that we're not going to let this event, that is so precious to us, be co-opted by the tragedy. We're going to take it back."

And take it back Boston did. It took Chung six and a half hours to run and walk the course but there were crowds pulling her along the whole way.

"There was such a great feeling," she recalls.

Even before that, the support she had from friends and family was critical. Colleagues persuaded her not to rush back to work. Her sister flew in from Switzerland and bought plates she needed for her apartment. Her parents gave her blackout curtains to help combat insomnia. People brought food. Her students made a get-well video. People visited in droves. And Chung kept her hands busy.

"I knit, so I knit a lot during that time."

She also watched her family, who are from California, take in how much support she had here in Massachusetts.

"My parents were very worried because I don't have family in the area," she says. "They both came out. They were very concerned about who was going to take care of me. But they could see I have a family, a community here. That was really reassuring for them."

Back to teaching

Chung returned to work that June. And she decided to go ahead with an already-planned summer trip to Turkey — part of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for teachers. There she learned she had something in common with a towering historical figure, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the army officer who became Turkey's first president.

"We were at Gallipoli, where he writes about how he got shrapnel in his chest but got saved by his watch. I was like, 'Ataturk, I got you! I had shrapnel in my chest too!'"

Chung says the moment helped her talk with the other teachers on the trip about what had happened to her.

"I have something in common with Ataturk," she remembers thinking. "Now I have to take over a country!"

As she laughs again it strikes me that humor is perhaps an overlooked and possibly essential ingredient of human resilience.

Chung says she's a different person now: more assertive, more straightforward.

"I have a different sense of urgency in life," she says. "It's easier for me to be decisive. Whereas before I might think, 'Oh, should I say this? Now I'm just going to say it. I'm a little bit more brazen."

She also meditates more than she used to. And she has her students meditate too.

"The whole movement for mindfulness in schools has helped me not question," she says. "This year I just said we're going to meditate at the beginning of class for three minutes. And we just do it."

"I wake up every day and feel I'm on borrowed time. I was so close to not being here. We can talk about it intellectually — how to be grateful, how to be thankful for being alive, but I actually feel it in a different way. I try to look for the good in everything. I tried to before, but it's much more meaningful now."

Sometimes people ask her if her sense that she's on borrowed time makes her want to quit teaching. She's amazed at the question.

"I say why would I do that?"

If anything, the whole experience has made her realize just how much she loves teaching. It's obvious if you visit her in her classroom. Many of her students linger long past the end of the school day. She makes herself available for extra tutoring, advice, homework time. She's tough on them, but also playful and kind.

Her classroom is one place where she occasionally breaks her own rule about not thinking about the attacks. One of the main themes in her social studies curriculum is "What makes a just society?" Last spring, during the sentencing phase of the Tsarnaev trial, her students discussed the death penalty and debated arguments for and against. Normally she would not share her personal or political beliefs with students. But in this instance, she felt she could, and should, because it invigorated the discussion. (She's against the death penalty, despite being attacked. That surprises some students.)

"I will wholeheartedly embrace that identity as a survivor to engage students in that way," Chung says. "That's where I feel like the story becomes relevant and meaningful for me, at least in my coping with it."

Outside the classroom it's a different story. She appreciates the large and supportive survivor network she is part of (and organizations like the Massachusetts Resiliency Center set up to help people affected by the attacks) but she doesn't want her status as a survivor to define her.

"For me it's a part of my story but I didn't want it to become my whole identity. It didn't alter my physical capabilities in such a way — I could wear a string bikini and you could almost not know — so it's just a story I have to share if I choose to share rather than actually really affecting my way of life and moving through the world, so in that way I have a different stance from others."

When Chung ran the marathon the year after the attacks, she chose not to run in the bright yellow commemorative t-shirt many other survivors wore.

"I think that's when I realized I don't want that [survivor identity] to be the number one thing," she says. "So it is a weird kind of fluid identity. I'm part, but not fully part."

"There's a weird part of me that feels like there are people who are bombed all the time and who are victims of so many other horrendous tragedies. That's what I struggled with a lot in therapy. What makes me any more special than anyone else? This is sad, this happened, but it's OK that I move on. I don't have to be mired in this identity for myself. That was part of why I personally choose to separate from it because that's my way to not get caught up in it."

In the next breath, as if to make sure I don't misunderstand what she's trying to explain, Chung says, "I love the feeling of Boston Strong. It's so powerful. When I was in California last summer, the song 'Carry On' came on the radio and I could just start crying. So there are triggers. Like wow. I cry from the emotion of – this was a city that came together."

That coming together has become the definition of resilience to Chung.

"I think it's about coming together and supporting each other," she says. "Nothing I do is in isolation. Even teaching. It's never about one teacher. It's a team. Who's there to support you? It's never smooth sailing. There are always ups and downs. Having someone lift you up or lifting someone else up, that's what helps us survive and keep going."

This story is part of PRI's ongoing coverage of stories of building resilience amid crisis — and building the strength to prevail.

An earlier version stated incorrectly that Jenny Chung didn't return to work in the spring of 2013. She returned to her classroom in June.

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