Sunday, September 11, 2011

repost: elliptical tears

(here's a repost from this day two years ago. i don't think i have much new to say...but maybe you didn't read this back then.)

he brought a knife to class.

i was an early-twenties community college instructor, teaching an 8am developmental english class in a computer lab. my students were of all sorts: young people getting started on an associate degree and hoping to transfer to a four-year college, older folks getting a new degree or certification in pursuit of a career in nursing or automotive technologies, immigrants getting their feet wet in a new world. they all came through my class because they needed some extra work on college writing. i was wet behind the ears, enthusiastically green and chomping at the bit to join these students in their pursuit of a whole new life.

and then, that morning, my slightly mysterious, quietly confused, small boy in a big man's body of a student brought a knife to class. a hunting knife, big and serrated, carried casually in a pouch on his hip. i didn't notice, wrapped up as i was in the joys of proper grammar and punctuation, thesis statements and topic sentences.

halfway through the two-hour class, around 9am, we took a break. the students left the computer lab for a drink, a snack (breakfast?), a smoke. they came back atwitter. several reported to me, quietly but not so casually, that the aforementioned student had a knife. indeed, there was no mistaking it: the poor, sweet, wouldn't-harm-a-fly student was carrying a weapon. was i supposed to know what to do about this? in all my twenty-three years of life, all my nine months of teaching experience? i talked to him quietly about the knife, asked him to leave, told him to meet me in my office after class ended at 10am. i'd explain then. he was clearly clueless and harmless, but he was also confused and very concerned about missing class. i'd fill him in later, i assured him, and (as i assured myself) i'd have my boss with me, just in case.

the rest of the students were atwitter with rumors flying through the hallways: there had been a plane crash in new york city. "aren't you from new york, mrs. jackson?" a plane crash was not high on my agenda for the morning; and anyhow, it was 9am, halfway through my class, and there was much left to cover. and i was myself distracted by the knife-wielding student. we plunged back into our work.

class ended at 10am, and i headed quickly for the adjacent building, which contained my office, my dean's office, and, among other things, the president's office and the college's main conference room. as i entered the building, i found the conference room door open, which it never was, and the big-screen television on, surrounded by many colleagues and students, including my dean.

not grasping what had happened as i had spent the last two hours in grammar-induced bliss, i hurriedly filled my dean in on my situation with the armed student; my immediate boss was herself teaching a class, and could my dean accompany me to meet the student who was no doubt waiting outside my office door? she did, tearing herself away from the television and quickly filling me in on the news.


there are six televisions on the wall in front of the exercise equipment of the gym where i work out. this morning, on the eighth anniversary of what we have all come to know simply as 9/11, i showed up at the gym around 9:30, climbed on my usual elliptical near the center of the room, plugged in my earbuds, and started jogging. was i aware of the date before i looked at the televisions? i'm not sure. but on the screen in front of me to my left was playing the footage from that very hour eight years ago; and on the screen in front of me to my right, the live memorial being held in the rain at ground zero.

the elliptical in the center of a gym full of people is not my usual spot of choice to break down. but as i watched, i was flooded with grief and memories.

memories of my beloved dean--she who tore herself from the footage eight years ago to come to my rescue--who passed away last spring from skin cancer.
memories of frantic attempts to find out the whereabouts of many city-dwelling college friends, including one who was just a block from ground zero and whose story from that day and those following still sends shivers up my spine.
memories of my sister-in-law's story of watching the smoke billow from the twin towers from her hoboken apartment as she wondered about her friend's husband, who worked on the top floor. he had been running late for work that morning, and hadn't arrived yet.

sure, those stories can choke me up sometimes, in a private conversation or a quiet moment. but on the elliptical? never before.

but the pump is primed, as it were, and i understand loss. that's the long and short of it. eight years ago, i had no idea what it meant to grieve. i had no idea what it meant to live in the inexplicable physical pain of tragedy. i did not understand fear or loneliness or mourning. sure, i cried along with the rest of the country as 9/11 unfolded, but i didn't know why.

today, on the elliptical, i did.

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