Twelve years ago, I was teaching my Advanced Placement English class when word came that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers in New York City. Several hours later, all classes were abandoned in the high school. A line of students formed in the office in order to call and know if family members who worked in NYC were okay. Our school media specialist hooked up televisions around the walls of the library, and students sat on the floor in the middle; everyone was silent and somber. Teachers and students mingled together, some with arms around each other, watching the catastrophic events on that beautiful September morning when the blue skies belied the carnage happening less than 100 miles away.
In December that year, I took those same AP students to see Othello performed at The Public Theatre in downtown NYC. We arrived early enough, so I suggested to the other chaperones that we have the bus take us down to Ground Zero. We reasoned that students should have a chance to witness history.
We travelled downtown, past the business-as-usual activity of stores and heavy traffic. We turned down a side street when the “shroud” suddenly came into view. The mangled frame was eerily illuminated, bending over the dust created by the workers who were working late into the night dismantling the remaining structures of the two buildings. We got off the bus and walked along the chain link fences that were covered with sheets and banners bearing the names of those killed and the sentiments of others who had come down to witness the aftermath.
A policeman approached us. I stepped out to explain our presence, but he turned to the students and asked, “Are you here to sing for us?”
The students stood dumbfounded. Finally, one choked out a sincere response, “No, but we will if you want us to.”
He hugged her with his big arms. “It’s ok, honey,” he smiled sadly, “just coming here is enough.”
There was no question that Shakespeare’s tragedy took a backseat that night.
This year’s graduating class of high school seniors is the last class that experienced 9/11 while in school. They are members of the last class that shared their emotions with teachers who struggled that day to explain the unexplainable. They were in kindergarten that fall. Chances are they had no idea what was happening except that their teachers may have been agitated, emotional, or distracted that day. Throughout the school year, they may have asked their teachers questions about what happened. In all likelihood, their teachers struggled with prepared responses.
The events of 9/11 have been etched indelibly in the hearts and minds of teachers and students who shared that experience. Now, that last group is graduating school. In the future, students will learn about the events of that day in schools in various classes and through a variety of mediums, but they will not be able to say, “I remember, I was in school when…”.
One way they will learn about the impact of 9/11 is through poetry, and there are many poems written from different perspectives. Billy Collins’s poem “The Names” captures the loss of 2,763 individuals in the Twin Towers by using the names of 26, one for each letter of the alphabet, with the exception of the letter X -“(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)”.
Television’s PBS invited Collins to read “The Names” on a broadcast September 12, 2012. The video and full text of the poem are on the PBS website.
BILLY COLLINS, poet (speaking): “The Names,” for the victims of September 11th and their survivors.
Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.
A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,
Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark. (continued on Billy Collins’s website)
This graduating Class of 2014 is the last where teachers and students were together when the world changed. The images and the aftermath were part of their school experience in 2001. Together, they learned the fate of so many, as Collins says,
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.