During the first few weeks of the fall semester, when I teach with the windows wide open, it’s not uncommon for the whine of lawnmowers on the quad to interrupt our work. Sometimes I’ll shut the windows with a sigh. Sometimes, if we are at a stopping point, I’ll wave the class away: Go. Live your lives. It’s a small gesture, the gift of a few extra minutes. The day the names came floating into our classroom, however—a droning litany of them, read over a loudspeaker on the steps of Thompson Hall—we stopped to listen.
It was September 11th, 2019.
For reasons not entirely clear to me—perhaps due to our proximity to Boston, where two of the hijacked planes departed—the university where I teach sponsors an annual reading of the names of the 3,000 victims of 9/11. Students, faculty, and staff approach the microphone and solemnly lend their voices.
In my creative nonfiction class, we were talking about “Leap,” Brian Doyle’s haunting 572-word meditation on the men and women who leapt to their deaths from the World Trade Center. The prose is as lyrical as it is brutal. Falling bodies hit the sidewalk and turn to pink mist, killing pedestrians, killing firefighters. A kindergartner sees people diving from the windows in flames and tells his teacher the birds are on fire.
Grammar itself fails in the face of the unfolding horrors as Doyle reflects on an unnamed couple who chose to leap hand-in-hand from the south tower. “I try to whisper prayers for the sudden dead,” he writes, “and the harrowed families of the dead and the screaming souls of the murderers but I keep coming back to his hand and her hand nestled in each other with such extraordinary ordinary succinct ancient naked stunning perfect simple ferocious love.” For my students, who have spent the last twelve years being scolded by grownups about run-on sentences and comma usage, the passage is a revelation. Its meaning slips free from the bounds of formal convention. Urgency is all.When you make art from your pain, you transform yourself. When you transform yourself, you transform the whole world.
The week prior I’d heard some students sharing work in a small group and apologizing to one another for what they had written in an exercise, describing their anecdotes as “too depressing” and “too sad.” Typically, I hold back from commenting when students discuss ideas amongst themselves. The more they learn about each other now, the more they care about each other. I don’t want to get in the way of that. In a workshop where they are one another’s core audience, care and community yield the best work.
But I couldn’t help it.
“You don’t have to apologize,” I said. “Life is sad and depressing! That’s not all it is, but that’s part of it!”
I told them anybody who would shame them for speaking their truth didn’t deserve to hear it. I said when you make art from your pain, you transform yourself. When you transform yourself, you transform the whole world.
For me, “Leap” reinforced this point by acknowledging that the events we all witnessed on 9/11—whether in person or in the nonstop TV coverage that followed—had indeed happened. The essay affirms: You aren’t the only one seeing this, thinking this, feeling this. It renders the coppery, blood-in-your-mouth taste of fear. It speaks to the helplessness of being small and human in the face of death and destruction. Like the hands of the man and woman about to leap from the south tower, its words are a reaching out. To read it—to read it and make the conscious decision to go on living in a world like ours, to be awake in our world, aware and accepting that loss is the price of love—is to take a leap of your own.
By contrast, I’m not sure what the public reading of the names of the victims asked of us. It was a reminder of the events of the day, certainly, and the sheer volume—name after name after name—spoke to the scope of the attack. But who were the dead to us? How did this serve their memory? My class and I listened thoughtfully for a few minutes, Doyle’s words and images fresh in our minds. Somewhere in that list of names, we knew, were the names of the man and woman who had tenderly taken each other’s hands.
After a few minutes, however, the listening required too much concentration to sustain. The names hung in the air like dust motes, one indistinguishable from the next. The students fidgeted in their chairs, began pulling out their phones and scrolling. Finally, I went to the window and shut it and we got back to work.
While my students bent over their notebooks, writing on a prompt I’d given them, I looked outside at a crisp blue morning just as full of promise and possibility as September 11, 2001. Sunlight slanted through the trees. The grass in the quad was still wet with dew. On the steps of Thompson, a middle-aged man in a suit stepped to the microphone. Several students with backpacks stopped to listen to him, then drifted off, waving each other goodbye.
Other students strolled by as though unaware. They would have been babies the day of the attack, if they’d even been born. They would have likely grown up hearing their parents’ stories about where they’d been and what they’d been doing on 9/11, just as I’d grown up hearing about JFK’s assassination. I wondered if the ritual seemed old-fashioned to them, a custom people my age and older clung to for sentimental reasons. I wondered if my stepping to the microphone and reading “Leap” might have changed that. In the meantime, the names of the dead kept thudding against the window. In their notebooks, my students scribbled words no one could hear.
Ezra Pound famously described poetry as “news that stays news.” That fall of 2019, our last full semester before the pandemic sent everyone home early in March 2020, I thought “Leap” would always retain its harrowing power. For me, it certainly has. When I read it now, I am every bit as chastened as when I first read it. But something has changed for my students.It’s not that I think my students are snowflakes. Quite the opposite. They have been subjected to so much senseless brutality, in word and deed, that they have become numb.
In their discussion board posts, they talk about how the descriptions of people leaping from the towers feel cliché, as though they have heard it all before. Some of them—maybe rightfully so—describe it as trauma porn. They don’t see this as a rendering of how it felt to be alive at that moment, how important it felt to find something, anything, to hold onto against despair. They see someone using graphic depictions of death to purposely make them feel bad.
To my students, “Leap” isn’t news—it’s an artifact, one not so different from the broken pieces of the World Trade Center on display at many local police stations. It’s easy for me to see the police agenda. They want to remind people of the evil they are supposedly protecting us from. It’s harder for me to see my own agenda.
The essays I could choose from to invite students into a conversation about writing are legion. Why this one?
I don’t have a simple answer, and whatever I might try to articulate would likely only serve as a fiction meant to prop up my choice. The truest thing I can say is I find value in what the essay makes me think and feel, and in the classroom, I operate on the assumption that, given the chance, students will find value in it, too.
Like many teachers, I have modeled my pedagogy on what worked best for me as a student. My favorite professors were the ones who taught from the center of their lives, whose obsessions fueled their insights, who could show me by example what I might do with the confusion and pain of being a person. In twenty-five years of teaching, I have come to believe that the quality of my presence—as a witness, a listener, a questioner, a sharer and explorer of experiences—is what makes the most difference to my students.
Since the disruption of the pandemic, however, my approach hasn’t really worked. Attendance has plummeted. Disengagement has risen. My students’ final reflections, once a source of enthusiasm and excitement for the writers and ideas, have flatlined. They don’t have the emotional bandwidth.
Last year, one student used ChatGPT to write his final reflection. Another angrily wrote that he didn’t see why he had to take writing since it had nothing to do with his major. To him, college was a scam. He didn’t want to think about—or maybe couldn’t—anything beyond getting a job. It made him angry that I had asked him to. All semester, on the days he actually managed to show up, he sat in the second row, scoffing when I talked, rolling his eyes, sighing heavily. It unnerved me.
I’d dealt with angry students before and had always been happy enough to sponsor conversation around the purposes of a liberal education. Such talks often got animated and interesting, with many student voices chiming in, sharing their own points of view and crafting convincing arguments. But there is no stomach for argument now. My best efforts to get students to engage are met with awkward silence and indifference.In our culture, we do not valorize mercy. It strikes too close to weakness.
To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of my students but a recognition that their needs have changed. Their generation has come-of-age in a pandemic that killed millions of people and laid bare incredible systemic inequities. They have watched rampant gun violence and climate change go unchecked, pregnant peoples’ reproductive rights trampled, Black history rewritten and/or banned altogether, books stripped from school libraries, LGBTQ+ communities further marginalized and criminalized, all while half the country throws its support behind a fascist carnival barker for President. Many of my students don’t know how they will ever afford to pay off their student loans, much less buy a house of their own someday. Against all that, my evangelism on behalf of the examined life rings hollow.
I would be mad at me, too.
Sometimes I am.
I don’t like how disconnected from my students I have begun to feel. I have started wondering if, in my mind, I’m still teaching as though it’s 2019, pre-pandemic. Or even earlier. As though I am the relic.
It’s possible I assign “Leap” for selfish reasons—to feel again the intensity of those early days after 9/11, when fear sharpened our senses, when even the quotidian felt meaningful. “This is how it was,” I implore my students. But with each passing semester, I am more and more like an old man helplessly trying to explain the significance of a particularly vivid dream. If I’m to be useful to anyone at all, I need to wake up.
Last June heavy smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted down and smothered the Northeast. At my home in Massachusetts, the sun went hazy and tinted the pine trees like an Instagram filter. In New York City, it was worse. A haunting orange sky loomed over everything.
In my social media feeds, friends in facemasks took selfies before the East River, Times Square, the Empire State Building, all of which were obscured by smoke. They talked about how the smoke triggered their PTSD from 9/11. Memories gave way to stories and commiseration. We had a reference point for catastrophe that my students’ generation lacked. I wondered how we came off to them, obsessing over a single event from twenty years before when the future—that ominous orange sky and all it portended—threatened an even greater destruction.
It’s not accurate, I realize, to describe 9/11 as a single event. There is no calculating the effects of its devastation in the days and weeks that followed, nor in the policy shifts that led us to two decades of war. But to speak of it as a day gives us shorthand for aggregating those things, a collective story by which to carry them, by which to know ourselves. Climate change doesn’t have such a day. Neither does Covid-19.
Mass shootings have had several—Columbine, Newtown, Uvalde—but nothing substantive has come from them. Like the smoke suffocating New York City, it’s a reality we have apparently resigned ourselves to.
Maybe it’s hopeless, but I keep trying to reach students with stories. I still believe writing can be transformative.
But maybe it’s also time for a new approach to violence, one with greater care and nuance. It’s not that I think my students are snowflakes. Quite the opposite. They have been subjected to so much senseless brutality, in word and deed, that they have become numb. Theirs is a world in which 9/11 reads as cliché.
My sense of what they need—what might shock them the most, what might break through to them—are stories of wholeness and healing, creative problem solving, community. Stories that, though they are violent, nevertheless strive to transgress violence. “Leap” is one such story. It offers no answers or easy solutions. Rather, it brings a sense of holiness to the work of suffering and grief. If it reads to some as trauma porn, perhaps that is because a culture that commodifies fear makes an authentic rendering of trauma impossible. If it reads to some as cliché, perhaps that is because we are obsessed with spectacle.
Toward the end of the essay, Doyle describes the hands of the man and woman about to leap from the south tower as “the most powerful prayer I can imagine,” as “everything we are capable of against horror and loss and death.” I have held onto those lines for twenty years, not out of nostalgia for a former self—or at least not totally for that reason—but because I have at times needed the reminder that I am more than the pain and hardship I endure.
I especially remember thinking of those lines during the early days of the pandemic when I read about how nurses had begun filling latex gloves with warm water, tying them off, and strapping them to their quarantined patients’ hands to simulate touch. They didn’t want their patients to feel as though they were dying alone, even though, in many cases, they were.
What difference it made to the dying is anyone’s guess. But for the families, and for the nurses themselves, who risked their own lives night after night, I imagine it mattered more than words can say. In our culture, we do not valorize mercy. It strikes too close to weakness. But those nurses were heroically merciful. Doyle, too. Even the essay’s length—a mere 572 words—is a kind of mercy.
The last time I taught “Leap,” only a handful of the students enrolled in class showed up. One of them was a 22-year-old Army veteran, who had been among the last US troops to leave Afghanistan. Before that, he had served in Iraq. Since graduating high school and completing basic training, deployment was all he’d known. Now he sat in a college classroom, intent on his studies but also distracted, somewhere else in his mind, as though he hadn’t yet to fully come home. The snippets he read from his writing were full of dreamlike details about Afghanistan—its weather, its landscape, the customs of its people. In one particularly beautiful passage, he described floating ash from a fire as black snow.
He had been two years old on 9/11. He talked about how strange it was to think that something that happened when he was still in diapers had so indelibly shaped his life. “I wouldn’t be here if not for that,” he said, meaning the classroom but also perhaps what the war had done to his heart and mind.
He said “Leap” reminded him of a day in Afghanistan when he’d seen three Taliban fighters killed on a rooftop.
He told the story and laughed uncomfortably at the absurdity of its details, as though still in shock at what he had witnessed. The story’s connection to “Leap” was tenuous. There was a bombed-out building. People died. I suspect he recognized himself in the workings of Doyle’s mind, the way it laid out facts and strove to somehow redeem them through perspective-taking. The way there was no redeeming them.
I have told my students a thousand times: the word “essay” means “to try.” To try to tell the truth. To try to understand who you are and what you want. Implied in the concept is the impossibility of ever getting it completely right. We stand on a ledge, all of us, holding hands. But we don’t just tell stories to express ourselves, or to better understand the world around us. We tell stories because we have to. We can’t help it. That’s what the ceremonial reading of names on the quad on 9/11 is about. Writing in notebooks, too. Writing essays.
Stories sometimes seem to hold the chaos of life at bay a moment the way music does, creating sequences that edify us for following along, enticing us with moods and modes, crescendos and diminuendos. We sing our stories against loneliness and fear and depravation. We beat them like drums.
But it’s an illusion to think that stories somehow hold life at bay. Rather, they are a way of entering the chaos more fully, a way of shaping and being shaped. If there is comfort in a story it rests not only in its meaning, which is always up for debate, but that in making meaning we embody the experience of being human. It is a terrifying, thrilling space to occupy.
Featured image by Augustus Binu