Originally posted 9/11/2011. Sometimes, you get it right the first time.
I was a media specialist the morning the towers began to fall: sole captain of a prep school video collection, and proprietor of the largest viewing space on campus. And so it was that the students came to me, one by one and together, by class and by cluster, as the word spread from teacher to teacher; so it was, indeed, that I ended up presiding over a grand experiment in media literacy, as the hour passed, and the cycle of not-news – that long hour of uncertain newscaster conjectures that accompanied the static, repetitive footage on every channel – took over the broadcast universe on that fated day.
As I noted last year , though we would not know until much later, we lost one of our own that morning: Chris Carstanjen, a sweet, geeky compatriot from the IT department, an almost-friend whose first drinking date we had scheduled for the following weekend, before he boarded that flight for California and never made it past downtown NYC. But what I remember most was the stunned silence of a hundred students or more, who in that moment, that sacred hour, were being born as the Terror Generation, though they would not know the deep societal scars which they would carry for a long, long time, if indeed they are still thoughtful enough to know now.
I remember, too, the Dean of Students and I deciding, finally, to turn off the screen, in the face of those somber and endless images and faces; to make a short and surely unmemorable speech about how the absence of news was not news, and commandeer the offices of librarians as impromptu counseling spaces for those who were scared, especially those who had parents and relatives in NYC and in the towers themselves, especially those who came from Muslim cultures and Muslim families, and seemed to understand, however vaguely, that they had suddenly become targets for other students’ confusion.
I remember feeling pride, for a moment, that I had managed to remember my calling in the face of disaster. And then I remember a long flash of shame, that I had somehow managed to make the day about me, thus cheapening the true scope of the disaster.
After that, I don’t remember anything at all. In my memory, it is as if turning off the television turned off the universe, too.
And ever since then, the world has been different. And I will always harbor a secret guilt, just like yours, that the world we rebuilt in the months and years that followed was not the same, even though we know, of course, that it could not have been.
Flash forward a decade, and here we are: one among a million paying tribute to the day the towers slowly fell. The world is faster, now, and more divided – two trends which spin into each other like two sides of a gyroscope, pulling at our psyches. I commute 40 minutes every morning to work with students for whom disaster is always personal and everpresent: homelessness, street violence, unemployment, the looming promise of dead-end futures. Some days it seems the only thing they own is their image, and who can fault them, then, for being so brash and sassy, peacocks with razor talons, angry at the world and taking it out on themselves without even realizing it.
I don’t know where to look for the the scars in this new generation, and I’m not sure I’d see them if I did. But their hardened hearts sadden me, sometimes.
There will be a moment of silence, come Monday’s morning announcements. And my students will speak into the air, loud against the voice of authority, unlistening and disconnected to their culture and each other, even as I am silent, and thinking of Chris, and of the moment I turned on the TV on the movie theater screen, and the smoking hole of culture flashed itself into my brain.
I can hear it, even now.
It’s been seven years, now, since I left the prep school; seven years since we lived side by side with the kids in the dormitories, and shared the pain and joys, the proms and punishments of night and day with the smart and well-bred, the resourced and the right-raised. But I often think of that day when I’m in my inner city classroom, working with the children of the downtrodden, the recent immigrants who don’t speak English, the hopeless – all categories of children whose pain is everpresent and real, and who would never have sat in silence, or even identified with the children of the towers.
Teachable moments are the lifeblood of the vocation, and I’m proud, I suppose, that we turned the TV off that day. But there is nothing so powerful as silence shared, as stunned communion. Nothing so powerful as a generation who grows up to see airport patdowns as normative rather than violation. Nothing so powerful, indeed, as the nexuses themselves, about which we try to say too much, and never truly find the words to speak of.
And so today we mourn the losses: of Chris, yes, and his airborne compatriots; of the parents and families of those who passed in fire and fall, impact and explosion – but also of the innocence of once-students now dispersed to the winds, some of them already struggling to raise children of their own. On one hand, they are and ever will be the children of privilege. On the other, they will always be the first generation, the youngest to truly understand what the world has become, without another, older sense of what it replaced.
To them, this new world is normal, for it is all they ever had.
Whether that makes them blessed or cursed is a matter for debate. And some days, I wish I knew, for it seems like it should matter very much indeed.
I miss them, those kids. I wonder about them, too. If I knew how to define okay in this instance, I’d ask them if they were, and if they remembered.
But I’m not sure I’d believe them, no matter what they said.