In September of 2001, I was just beginning my senior year of high school, still ensconced in my prep school's pastel, stained-glass world; it was a place for academics, where televisions would have ordinarily been rare but for that day.
At some point in the morning, we were quickly called into assembly to notify us that there had been an apparent attack in New York and Washington, and that there was little further information, but a television would be placed in the Commons Room.
And then, my teachers did something brilliant, that I have appreciated more and more to this day. They kept teaching.
We returned to class. I was taking one of the most popular senior electives, a semester-long intensive study of Dante's Divine Comedy with our superstar English teacher. But he had long since chosen to start the semester with a reading of C.S. Lewis' A Grief Observed -- a book he felt had spiritual connections to the Commedia -- and we spent the rest of the period as we would have anyway, discussing the dimensions of grief, its immediacy and eventual, necessary fading. Universals that applied to the day, certainly.
Later in the day, I have distinct memories of my history teacher asking the class a series of questions that were incredibly prescient, given events of the ten years since then. "Who is a ter-ror-ist," he asked, sounding out the syllables to emphasize the construction of the word, "and what makes one a ter-ror-ist?" "Is this war?" He immediately saw what it took years for me and so many other people to realize: this was an act that largely took on its meaning through our own reaction to it, and there were no foregone conclusions to make about what action was necessary. He was a voice of reason, debating patiently with his students who were already seeking blood, clouded by fear.
Looking back after ten years, I remember that day well, and I remember the pain and shock. I remember watching news reporters running down the street in terror as clouds of dust and debris rushed towards them. I remember city officials appearing on the Today Show covered in that dust, working as fast as they could to get information on the air. And, of course, I remember the dead.
But, first and foremost, I remember my teachers, for what they didn't do. They treated the day as what it was, one among many, a new variation on an old pattern of life. Tragedies come in many forms: who is to say that the shock of that day merits more recognition than the thousands of highway deaths each year, or the cancer deaths we give ourselves by burning coal rather than using nuclear power, or the tragedies perpetrated overseas by those who still believe in "American exceptionalism" when it comes the use of violence as a tool of state policy? It's important to remember, but it's just as important to forget; there is no other way to live together. This was a lesson from A Grief Observed, applied just as well to that day as to any other.
After school, we went home, we went to dinner with our families, and the next morning we went to school again. Life continues anew, and that is the most important lesson to learn.