Teaching as Healing at Ground Zero

By Jay, Karla | Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Teaching as Healing at Ground Zero


Jay, Karla, Women's Studies Quarterly


11 May 2002: We New Yorkers like to think that we're at the center of it all, but when the rest of the world believes that, too-though with entirely negative connotations-we're shocked and outraged. Luckily, New Yorkers also tend to spring back from adversity with defiance and incredible pluck. How else could the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center have sunk so completely out of sight?

Although Pace University's Civic Center campus is just two blocks from where the Twin Towers stood, we have never thought of ourselves as the epicenter of anything. We are usually a footnote to New York University or Columbia. If I ask a taxi driver to take me to Pace, I have to be careful not to wind up at Pratt in Brooklyn. Our students aren't polled to find out what's happening in education. Indeed, to read the media after 11 September, one might have thought that New York University was the closest school to ground zero; actually, Pace and the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) were both right there, BMCC to the north and Pace to the east.

Thus it was a great surprise to find ourselves at the center of something so horrific, a tragedy from which none of us will ever recover and from which, I fear, many of us will eventually die. Who knows what it is that we have been inhaling downtown since the world as we knew it changed? Not surprisingly, I have developed asthma this spring.

But my story-and Pace's-isn't just about life near a construction site where the tallest buildings in the city once stood. My experiences would be meaningless if what I learned about teaching, about my love for students, and about the larger role of women's studies in the curriculum didn't have universal applications. Looking back now, I wonder why it was ever possible for me to become distant from students on my large urban campus or to allow teaching ever to become just a job, even though everyone said I was and am very good at what I do.

And so this essay revisits that horrific day that changed my life forever but gave me an opportunity to re-evaluate what it means to be a teacher.

11 September 2001: Getting dressed for the second class of the semester, I, like millions of other Americans, was riveted by the breaking television story that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Then another one. In addition to disbelief, shock, anger, and sadness I had another thought: "Oh no, not us, not again!" Pace University's downtown campus, where I have taught English and Women's Studies for twentyseven years, is just two blocks from where the towers stood.

Where were my students, colleagues, and the many Pace alums who work in the Trade Center? Some of the dorms were in the hot zone; many students lived on or near West Street in the shadows of the towers. How could I contact them since phone lines and our e-mail system were knocked out?

Luckily, I had had students fill out profile sheets that provided me with their e-mail addresses and home phone numbers. I managed to reach all but one. They were terrified and shaken, most with tales of being evacuated from the dormitories or classrooms, of huddling in basements, classrooms, or windowless bathrooms while the buildings shook. Others saw the towers implode, watched smoking bodies and body parts tumble from the sky. Singing "Amazing Grace," students ran down seventeen flights of stairs only to emerge onto streets covered with inches of dust and concrete as well as a confetti of travel itineraries, stock transactions, checks, and memos. One former student, whom I had frequently chewed out for being tardy, proudly e-mailed me that she was late to class that day as well. Four less fortunate Pace students were killed in the disaster. We lost forty alums; a chunk of concrete clobbered one faculty member on his head. Many of us lost friends or relatives as well.

As the administration, led by President David A. Caputo, valiantly tried to reassure the Pace community, find out who was missing, and get the New York City campus back up and running, I wondered what was the best course to take with my students. …

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