Where were you on 9/11? Centre faculty share
Ten years after 9/11, Centre College professors reflect on where they were when they heard the news of the tragedy. As one might predict, faculty members’ experiences offer a wide array of emotions, which they grappled with in locations across the world.
Rick Axtell, Paul L. Cantrell Associate Professor of Religion
I was directing Centre’s study abroad program in Mexico. It was our first week in the Yucatan. Having visited Mayan archeological sites the day before, we were having breakfast at a seaside restaurant before snorkeling. A student noticed a bulletin on the restaurant’s TV about a terrible accident in New York. The cafe grew silent as we watched jets hit the Pentagon and the second tower in New York. The new reality descended like a dark cloud. Students were confused, emotional, somber. Several wanted to go home. After contacting loved ones, we tried to make sense of these events and discussed how the world had changed. Back in Merida, we gathered to discuss the President’s speech. For weeks, Mexicans approached us to offer support and condolences.
The mood in Mexico changed after the bombing of Afghanistan. I watched Mexican and U.S. news as the crisis unfolded. Mexican stations showed nightly pictures of devastating Afghan civilian casualties that were not shown on U.S. networks. North Americans saw a different war on their televisions than the rest of the world saw.
Soon after 9/11, we had an unforgettable experience in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. Chiapas was the site of a 1994 uprising of indigenous farmers who saw NAFTA as a threat to their land and culture. The military response to the rebellion used weapons supplied by the U.S. In ensuing years, many of these weapons were used by paramilitary groups who terrorized anyone supporting indigenous movements. Now, weeks after 9/11, in a poor Chiapan village on the Guatemalan border, we were warmly welcomed by our hosts. An old farmer told us that villagers had prayed for their northern neighbors in our hour of need and mourned the unjust loss of life. Surrounding us in a circle, they expressed solidarity. Then the old farmer gently broadened our horizons. Here in Chiapas, he said, terror has been our daily reality for years. We’ve cried out for an end to the terror but no one hears our voices. Now that terror is a reality in the United States, there is to be a worldwide war on terror. Will this mean that weapons will no longer be sent to those who are killing our people?
My “Religion and Violence” course now includes new readings on Islam and war, comparing Islamic and Christian theories of just war, and exploring the ethics of war in the context of relations between the Muslim world and the west. Reading a wide spectrum of Muslim writers from the classical jurists, to Osama bin Laden, to his opponents among the Muslim Democrats, we learn that 9/11 does not reflect mainstream Islam. Islam is not our enemy. Hopefully, the classroom is one place where the seeds of a more peaceful world are planted.
Danielle Dampier, Visiting Instructor of Education
9/11 was one of the toughest days of my professional career. I was in my second year as a principal at Jennie Rogers Elementary. I was listening to NPR while on my way to a very brief 9:00 meeting at central office when I heard a report of a plane hitting one of the towers. My first thought was that some stupid pilot of a small personal plane had caused the accident. Little did I know this was just the beginning of a national tragedy.
Returning back to school 15 minutes later, buzz of the tragedy hadn’t started yet. A few minutes later one of the teachers came to my office saying that a plane had hit the Pentagon. I responded saying that it was just a small plane that had hit one of the towers in NYC, not the Pentagon.
As we started to get more information about the horrific events I found myself dealing with teachers who were devastated and trying to still keep a good front with their students. I was also dealing with parents calling the school to make sure we knew what happened. Amazingly enough, unlike most schools in America, not one parent came to check out their child from school. This showed their confidence in our ability to keep the students safe and to handle the situation.
Having a range of five-year-old children up to 12-year-olds in our building meant we were dealing with a whole range of development. It was our decision not to tell the children of the events but to let their parents tell them in their own way when they got home. I immediately started formatting a letter to the parents explaining how we handled things at the school level: teaching as normal — or as normal as it could be for a staff wondering about their own loved ones. We were careful not to turn on the televisions in front of the children, but had them on in strategic locations throughout the school. Since our elementary students shared buses home with the middle and high school students we asked that an announcement be made to those other schools not to share info with our students.
Personally, I didn’t have time to think to grieve until I finally left school that evening. Then, finally in the comfort of my own home, I broke down in tears.
Jane Wilson Joyce, Charles J. Luellen Professor of Classics
On 9/11, a Tuesday, I was preparing to meet my freshman humanities class, when Prof. Mike Hamm, serving as a town crier, as it were, for the fourth floor of Crounse, began to cry the news. I remember thinking it was some awful accident, involving a private plane, a Piper Cub, say, or even a corporate jet. As the scope of the disaster began to become clearer, I went to meet my class of freshmen at 2:20. They looked pale and uneasy, but they were all there. What to do? I said that today was a hideous day, we were all upset and distracted, and I was ready to do what they wished. Would they prefer not to have class? To stay and talk about the disaster? To have class as usual? I really did not know what to expect. They wanted to have class. I said that anyone who wished to leave was free to do so — I really did not know how the class and I would manage, frankly. But we were scheduled to talk about Homer’s “Odyssey” (or at least I suspect we were), and that’s what we did. As so often happens, the poem gave us a way both to escape and to confront the current horror. Focusing on Odysseus, we could talk about the journey, courage, encounters with fear in ourselves and with other (and sometimes frightening) cultures. I don’t know if the ninety minutes helped any of my students, but Homer — and talking with them — helped me.
Benjamin Knoll, Assistant Professor of Government
I was a first-year undergraduate student at Utah State University. 9/11 was a Tuesday morning and I had an introduction to international relations class that morning. A lot of students skipped class to watch the news, but being the dutiful pupil that I was, I showed up for class. Our professor brought in a TV so we could watch coverage and she basically said, “Everything that’s in your textbook about international relations is about to change.”
Jennifer Muzyka, Professor of Chemistry
It was a Tuesday or Thursday, since I remember it was a lab day. I didn’t have lab that morning. Keith Dunn mentioned to me that his wife had called him to tell him that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. A few minutes later we heard that a second plane had hit. We thought at first that the first plane had been a freak accident and maybe the second one was a news helicopter instead of a plane. When we realized it was another plane, we knew it was a terroristic act. We went down to the Warehouse [at that time the student center] to watch the news on TV. As we watched Peter Jennings reporting the event, we saw the first tower crumble. At first Peter Jennings didn’t realize what had happened. He said you couldn’t even see the building because of all of the dust. I couldn’t bear to watch much after that, because it was so intensely disturbing to think our country had been attacked in such a drastic way. The rest of the week is sort of a blur to me. I was worried that my young son, who was in Montessori school at the time, would be permanently scarred by seeing the repeated showings of the footage when the towers collapsed. Thus, we tried not to watch the news on TV very much in the next few weeks. As a faculty member, I noticed that the event brought a somber tone to the rest of the term.
Mark Rasmussen, Professor of English
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, students in Centre’s Strasbourg program, which I was directing that year, took their final exam in the mini-course on the culture of Alsace that began our term. After the final was over, I went back to my apartment, checked my e-mail and learned the horrible news of the terrorist attacks. I went straight back to the classroom building, where students were already gathering, watching events unfold on CNN (the classroom had a cable hookup). You can imagine how distressing and surreal it was to have all this be happening so very far away, and for many hours it was difficult to reach friends and loved ones in the United States (including my own mother, who lived, and still lives, in New York).
We had planned to leave early the next morning for a three-day group trip to Paris, and eventually we decided to stick with that plan. I’ve always been glad we did. Security was beefed up throughout the city, so that it actually felt safer than usual, and on our first night, several students were able to attend a memorial service in Notre Dame cathedral for the victims of the attacks. What has stayed with me from those months is the outpouring of sympathy that all of us felt from the French people. During that time, when people learned that you were American, almost invariably they would share their thoughts, if only asimple acknowledgement, “c’est dur” (“it’s hard”). Many of those who spoke so kindly to us were French Muslims, and there was an important lesson in that, too. I also remember passing the American embassy one day and seeing dozens of floral bouquets scattered at the foot of the fence, or balanced between its iron bars, with handwritten notes: “US + Europe = One World.”
Joe Workman, Professor of Chemistry
It wasn’t 9/11 for me, it was 9/12. I was on sabbatical in New Zealand for the 2001-02 academic year. I had arrived in Auckland, NZ on July 1, 2001, and was working in the chemistry department at Auckland University.
On the morning of September 12 (NZ is 16 hours ahead of Kentucky) I woke up, had some breakfast, and left my apartment for the lab. I saw a newspaper box and the headline about the attack stunned me. I ran back inside and turned on CNN International and watched live pictures of New York City at about 4 p.m. U.S. time. So, while most people at Centre probably watched the attacks in real time, all I saw was a replay of it.
The next few days were somewhat of a blur. It was very strange because there was absolutely no fear in New Zealand of similar terrorist attacks. The 9/11 attacks did not really change anything in NZ. In fact, I flew around the country several times without showing any ID. There was a great deal of sympathy expressed by the country, but it did not seem to match my sorrow. My most vivid memory of that week was watching the memorial service from the Washington Cathedral at about 3 a.m. my time and learning that one of my former students, Joe Hill ’01, had been accepted to medical school. It was an odd combination of great joy and extreme sorrow. I felt very lonely and helpless. I don’t know if I was lucky that I never experienced the fear in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (or of the anthrax attacks).
I missed Centre a great deal, especially my colleagues and the students. I did not return to the U.S. until August 1, 2002, when I flew into Chicago and then Louisville. I remember the enormous number of U.S. flags when I walked through O’Hare in Chicago. The country had definitely changed while I was away.