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Geoff Watkinson: What We Lost

On teaching 9/11.

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Photo from Flickr via Jason Powell

This is the fifth year I’m teaching a freshmen composition class during the week of 9/11. Last Thursday night after class, a student approached me. She asked how in-depth our discussion of 9/11 was going to be. I asked her if she had a personal connection and she nodded.

I didn’t push her for details. Rather, I told her that I understood if she needed to leave the room for some time and that if it became too much, she was excused. I explained how important I thought it was for us to discuss 9/11 and how the essays we’d be reading by David Foster Wallace and Adam Goodheart presented provocative approaches not just to 9/11, but also to writing about a cultural event.

The world I’m now living in—the post 9/11 world—is something other than modern.

On the humid walk to my car after our exchange it struck me that I’d likely never again teach a composition class with any students who had memories of 9/11. I walked by a new academic building for the engineering department. As I examined the illuminated sheets of reflective glass on the front of the building I thought about how the world I’m now living in—the post 9/11 world—is something other than modern.

If, on September 10, 2001, we were in the midst of modernity—spaceships and satellites, skyscrapers and airplanes—then since September 11, 2001, we’ve been trying to come to terms with a modernity that was destroyed. This is, in many ways, no different from the disillusioned post-WWI generation, or the effects of the Great Depression, or the aftermath of WWII and the Holocaust, or the ripple effect of the JFK assassination, or the impacts of Vietnam. And yet it is different.

In “The Skyscraper and the Airplane,” Goodheart writes, “For flying requires an act of almost religious faith, the surrender of oneself, in absolute trust, to the wisdom and benevolent expertise of corporations, pilots, governments, engineers—the whole apparatus of modernity.” But that apparatus of modernity—our constant trust in the workings of things most of us will never understand—was shrouded in shadows thirteen years ago. What seems to have been lost, ultimately, is that absolute trust that lurks somewhere in the mist of memory of those of us who were old enough before that Tuesday morning thirteen years ago to understand what was happening. It’s hard to make it out, there on the periphery of the mind, through the thick fields of mistrust, suspicion, and anxiety that have become a standard lens of perception.

It seems that we have forgotten to remember, or remember to forget that what we lost was trust.

The thing about September 11th nowadays is that no one really talks about it. Sure, pundits talk about ISIL or ISIS or IS or the Islamic State and their potential for striking the homeland and how vulnerable we are and how the terror threat level might be raised but hasn’t been raised and how this organization is “so bad even Al Qaeda is afraid of them.” But what we don’t talk about is life before skyscrapers were vulnerable. Before the worst thing that could happen to a commercial airliner was an accidental crash. Before the Patriot Act. Before a wasteland of fear was the backyard of life. It seems that we have forgotten to remember, or remember to forget that what we lost was trust. A belief that modernity would progress exponentially because that’s what modernity is supposed to do. We’ve lost optimism. The faith that has made America so great.

On that Tuesday morning thirteen years ago, I was fifteen years old. I sat in my sophomore English classroom in central New Jersey, where I grew up, and watched, live, the second plane fly into the second tower. I remember, distinctly, knowing that it was terrorism almost immediately. I’d seen the World Trade Center up close enough times to know the buildings’ stature. I knew that no propeller plane could cause the kind of destruction I was watching unfold, but I also knew that no commercial airliner would fly into the building. It was the prime of my adolescence, the remainder of which was spent in the modernity-shattered world.

I remember, that morning, thinking it was possible that my father, an attorney who often worked in New York, and spent a handful of days each year meeting clients at the World Trade Center, could have been there. I texted him, asked if he was okay, if he was in the city. And for the first time, as I waited for a response, I contemplated my father’s mortality.

My classmates and I watched people fall from the towers. We watched the first tower fall, the brown cloud sweep over Manhattan. We watched the second tower fall, the second brown cloud. We watched pictures of the Pentagon taken from helicopters. We watched the blaze in the fields of Pennsylvania.

And I remember watching, again and again, clips of the towers being struck by airplanes throughout the day, the next day, the next week, the next month, the next year. Every time I watched, I thought that somehow the towers wouldn’t be hit. That at the last moment, the plane would steer away, just missing the building. That people wouldn’t jump from burning steel and concrete hundreds of feet above the pavement. I couldn’t stop watching, hoping. But each time the same thing happened.

I remember the apprehension—the anxiety—that followed when I got into elevators in tall buildings. When I went through security at the airport. When I used the subway in New York.

I was afraid. Sometimes I’m still afraid.

And so, this 9/11, for the last time in my life, I’ll teach a group of freshmen with misty memories of 9/11 from when they were five.

And so, this 9/11, for the last time in my life, I’ll teach a group of freshmen with misty memories of 9/11 from when they were five. We’ll discuss David Foster Wallace’s “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s” and Adam Goodheart’s “The Skyscraper and the Airplane.” We’ll watch the footage of that clear Tuesday morning—an uncannily beautiful day almost everywhere in the country. We’ll listen to news commentators, 911 phone calls, voicemails from people trapped in the buildings or hostages on United Flight 93. Maybe we’ll watch speeches from Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush and talk about rhetoric.

Maybe we’ll talk about how a world they didn’t yet understand—a world I didn’t understand—was forever altered. How the repercussions—the ripple effect—has cost hundreds of thousands of lives all over the world. How surveillance, slowly but surely, has impacted our privacy. Our liberty. Our freedom. How our president gives drone assassination orders almost daily. How the news coming out of the Middle East today is a result of what happened on that Tuesday morning thirteen years ago, is a result of a complex web of history that includes 9/11.

Or maybe, if that’s too heavy for them, we’ll simply talk about Wallace’s sentences. Goodheart’s structure. Style. Technique. Voice. Maybe we’ll just talk about writing. Because teaching writing is easier than talking about September 11th.

But surely, I’ll ask them the question I’ve grown up asking myself. I’ll ask them what we’ve lost.

Geoff Watkinson founded Green Briar Review in June 2012. He has an MFA from Old Dominion University, where he was the managing editor of Barely South Review. Geoff has contributed to Moon City Review, The Good Men Project, Bluestem, Prick of the Spindle, and FLARE: The Flagler Review, among others. He’s received residencies/scholarships from the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center and Wildacres. Find him at www.geoffwatkinson.com.

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