Bad things don’t always happen after 3 p.m.
That’s how it sometimes falls to teachers to tell children terrible things we wish we didn’t have to.
That happened 20 years ago.
It could be argued that, in fact, we didn’t have to tell them, that our students could have waited until they got home, or their parents got home — or they heard it on the news before their parents got home. To tell the truth, it’s often seemed to me that schools only heighten hysteria and grief by suspending classes in favor of counseling sessions and local crisis debriefings. It’s one thing whether a child needs to talk to someone about trouble or tragedy. It’s another when you cancel learning for everybody because somebody might need to talk.
That day I talked. It seemed absurd not to.
I was sitting at my desk between classes, fuming over a few choice petty grievances, when I heard the news. There’s nothing like life to put things in perspective.
I saw the awful footage, the video of the plane headed horribly wrong, the inferno and the hail of glass, and then the cascade of something so immense that was and then in an instant wasn’t. And I was just watching a television screen.
I was 51 years old. I cherish quiet and peace, and I find it hard to hate anybody. The closest I’ve come to a rifle is butchering time, and that killing always grieved me. I get winded cutting the grass on a humid day. Yet there I was walking down the school corridor, and in my head I heard myself say I should enlist.
I’ve read how everyone signed up after Pearl Harbor. But I never understood till that morning.
I came of age during Vietnam. I didn’t protest or burn my draft card, but I was relieved when my lottery number was high. Though I’ve never worn a uniform, I have no doubt that war is truly hell, and I trust the fallen soldier who wrote long ago that it is neither sweet nor proper when a young man dies for his country.
But there was that voice in my head.
I teach United States history. I begin with the fall of Rome and feudalism because I want my students to understand the legacy of chaos, oppression, hardship and fear that people were fleeing when they came here. That’s what we were studying that Monday.
But history is also the events that happen now, the days students will one day recall for their children when time has softened the outlines and blurred the details.
Ordinarily, I don’t have much patience for people — myself included, when I catch myself — who run their mouths when they don’t know what they’re talking about. One news anchor interviewed the author Tom Clancy just before the towers collapsed. Why, if you’re an anchorman, would you ask a fiction writer what he thinks? And why, if you’re Tom Clancy, would you answer?
Then the next morning somebody asked me. And I’m looking out at a room full of children, 13 and 14, too young to drive but old enough to think they know where they’re going. They’re part curious and part giggling and part scared.
I told them about Tom Clancy and that I knew even less than he did. But then I did what Tom Clancy did. I tried to answer anyway.
They wanted to know if this was a war.
I know that teachers are supposed to be reassuring, but I also wanted to be honest. And by that next morning they’d seen the film loops and heard the words “war” and “infamy” and “Pearl Harbor” from the mouths of their nation’s leaders, on networks and in newspapers.
Is this a war?
I told them that terrorism isn’t new. I told them about Hitler and the London blitz, and how he tried to terrorize England, and how that terror only strengthened that people’s resolve.
Is this a war?
I told them that hard times show what we’re really like. I told them that hard times make us strong. I told them they could go home and sleep in safety.
I teach my students that nations behave like people, and that history often turns on acts and actors that on the scale of eternity are less than the fine dust. King Henry wants a son, and from that first cause descends the Church of England, the Spanish Armada, the Puritans, and the First Amendment. An emperor’s nephew and his wife are murdered sitting in their car, and a generation perishes in trenches.
That day 20 years ago history turned.
There have been other days as terrible, and with all respect and humility before those whose loss was personal, some days that have ended even more terribly. The comfort of history for me is that people no braver than I have survived. Despite our common frailty, our exhaustion and bewilderment, we endure what we fear we cannot bear.
At Gettysburg, Mr. Lincoln said it was altogether fitting and proper that we honor those who gave their lives so that our nation might live. It’s also right to remember those who went to work that September day but didn’t go home.
But wars aren’t our only hard, perilous times. History is turning now, and if we’re unaware of that, it’s because we’re turning with it.
I fear for our republic.
I console myself with Mr. Lincoln’s firm devotion to the ideals and the nation he believed the last best hope of Earth, for which he, too, gave his last full measure of devotion.
Hasten the day when we’re again touched by our better angels.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.