“What?” she asked. “Are you okay?” The young man’s voice quivered, his attention riveted elsewhere. In a voice more automaton than human he replied “They’ve flown into the World Trade Center. It’s on TV.” He hung up.
The television scenes were surreal. Billows of smoke and debris, falling bodies, people screaming; the words “terror attack”, Flight 93, the Pentagon, second tower; all crowded the screen for attention. Any one of them could easily have filled up the 24/7 news for weeks. By the time a second plane flew into New York’s other monolithic building, the professor, I’ll call her Professor Sage, sprang into action.
Having grown up during the cold war when school children were regularly practiced in how to “take cover and tuck”, she feared the worst. Immediately, she emailed each of her grown children, instructing them to fill up their bathtubs with water, gather batteries for their electronics, and stay inside “until we know more about what is happening.” A more contemporary version of “Take cover and tuck”.
Then she sat down to decide what to do about her classes. That day was already cancelled, but what about tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow? How long would we stay in hiding and at what cost to the psyches of our most vulnerable citizens, our students? As a psychology professor she was well acquainted with the personal stories of many of hers.
One young woman, here from Japan and living alone, had no one to turn to for comfort in these terrifying times. Other students, on their own for the first time, wanted to be brave but would need the company of others to keep them strong. Then there were the descendants of southern rebels; still angry that the old South lost the war; ready to take up arms at a moment’s notice. “...and this time, we will not lose!” They had heard that some of the terrorists trained to fly at a Florida flight school so they knew where they wanted to go. Yet, if any of these young people decided to take matters into their own hands, not only would they hurt innocents and spread panic, they would ruin their own lives, as well.
The decision wasn’t easy but it was clear; classes would continue as scheduled unless or until we were unable to do so any more. Emailing her students to stay safe today and tomorrow, “come to class if you choose, with no penalty if you choose not to”, Professor Sage prepared a very different lesson plan.
The next day, when she arrived on campus, it was eerily empty. Brave custodians who made the classrooms available were nowhere to be seen. Professor Sage wondered if she had made a mistake asking her students to attend. She rounded the corner next to the entrance to her class room, noticing all was deathly quiet. Suspecting that her invitation to attend class and discuss the events of yesterday was indeed premature, she sadly entered the room wondering how long she should wait before making the long drive home. To her amazement, everyone of her students was sitting there... as quiet as prayer.
In the three hours that followed, students shared all manner of concerns. All listened to each other and reached out when anyone felt overwhelmed by sadness or despair. They also reached through anger, to those who wanted revenge, who wanted to revert to the tactics of their forefathers, don white sheets and issue fiery messages. With absolute respect for the feelings of fury, students encouraged non violence as a way they could be of real assistance to the families who lost so much.
By the end of the three hour class, a transformation had occurred that not even Professor Sage expected. Some might call it a miracle. Gone was the innocence of those fresh-faced students who arrived only a few weeks before, caring only about grades and social intrigue. These courageous students had battled their worst nightmares and entered the ranks of maturity by letting go of preconceived notions of payback and embracing a new reality: A world where every person’s voice is important and where reaching out is the true path to peace.
That night as Amazon Sage left the side of her professor friend, they shared a smile in the cool light of a new world. As it turns out, today is a good day to live.