If you grow up Jewish, the phrase Never Forget can elicit a variety of things, including: memories; historical trauma; your perception of Anne Frank’s attic; and, most notably for me, the pervasive awareness that brutality and injustice can occur without provocation, nor remorse.
Until then, mine had been the Space Shuttle explosion. Before that, a toss-up: John Lennon getting shot or the release of the Iranian hostages. I think my mom’s had been her third divorce. My father’s, I was almost certain, was John F. Kennedy.
That morning, I’d been ignoring the nonstop ringing of my landline because I was trying to sleep in after spending the bulk of the day procuring the very special poisonous skin crème that killed scabies—a souvenir from a seemingly successful, yet somber succession of performances and workshops at a Boston fringe festival. I knew that once I awoke, I’d be up for at least 24-hours because we were leaving for the West Coast leg of the tour; by evening, we’d be performing in L.A.
When I did finally answer, with a whiny and disgruntled, “Why are you calling me this early? I thought we didn’t have to leave for the airport for hours.”
Beth replied, “The airport is closed. We can’t pick up the van. Something’s happened! Something horrible is happening! In New York! Turn on your TV!”
I turned on the enormous box TV at the foot of my bed, a rare and cumbersome relic of my childhood, just in time to see the second plane crash into the towers.
What did I feel?
I feel like I should say that I was shocked. And, I feel like I’m breaking the law to say that, the truth is, I wasn’t. I was not shocked to realize that someone, or somewhere, was angry at America.
Every second that I stared at the live coverage, which turned into minutes, and hours, I was sick with the circling realizations that each person that died was most likely a beloved person to another.
Simultaneously, I, like so many, tried to get through to people in New York. My father lived part time in the city, and I had no idea if he was there that morning. Somehow, amidst my obsessive, continuous dialing, my phone rang, and before I could say hello, my father screamed, “Emily! Where are you?!”
“I’m home. Dad, I’m home—in Olympia. I’m ok. Dad—where are you? I’ve been trying to find you. Are you ok? Are you in New York?”
I think he burst into tears.
He said, “No. I’m not in New York. I’ve been calling and calling…all I knew is that you had a show in Boston last night, and then you were performing in L.A. I thought you were on that plane!”
“I wasn’t. I’m OK. We flew in yesterday, and we’re supposed to leave this morning, and now…I don’t know what’s happening.”
My most devastating memory about September 11th—the one that left me in a heap of tears, feeling hopeless and petrified, had nothing to do with the falling of the twin towers or the thousands of deaths- though I certainly cried about them, as well. The memory that obliterated my comprehension and made me fear for the future, on my knees—yes, the moment that brought me to prayer, was when President Bush chose to retaliate and declare the war on terrorism.
In front of a television, my brain drenched in whiskey, and my body, in preventative scabies cream, I watched the extraordinary opportunity to acknowledge America’s own violent blueprints, ongoing brutally, and present-day global and domestic terrorism, vanish, just like the true histories of its people.
Bush consciously decided against telling a truth that could have shifted the agonizing and vicious effects of historical trauma.
Bush passed the buck, and then planted fear in the hearts of the already terrified. And how did he ensure this collective distress? With the haunting and ironic anthem, “Never Forget.”
I can’t find the poem. I can’t remember the title, either. I’d never had a digital copy; only a piece of paper that had made it back and forth across the country, surviving my numerous moves since I’d first found it somewhere, in place I also cannot remember. I’ve tried to Google it, but the lines, a litany of dates, countries, and murder, have now fused with the fragments of a poem I wrote when I was barely 20-years-old, on the night of my mother’s death.
At 10:51, I lost.
This was not the only tragedy on that day
My deepest longing
My biggest fan
We marched into the fields…
Every day, all over the world, people are dying.
3,000 died here
And, here, these people have died.
And, in Chile…
I’ll never hear you scream
Or pine for your fingers in my hair.
At 10:51, I lost
At 10:52, I remembered.
The last time I remember seeing that wayward sheet of paper with a poem was the summer of 2011, when I’d decided to use it for the diagnostic exam of a developmental college reading course.
It was a spontaneous decision, inspired by the first day’s rambunctious exploration of the infinite benefits and necessity of critical thinking, and the presence of a very newly immigrated Pakistani student who had met his now-wife, an American doctor, in a trauma center that provided medical care to Afghanis injured by US attacks. He was the translator, as well as a student only a few credits shy of his MBA. They’d fallen in love and now they lived here.
On the second day of class, I handed out instructions, and the poem, which I believed was a literary and viable alternative to the standard newspaper articles students were typically instructed to annotate, outline, summarize, and identify and make note of its claims and supporting details.
By design, the exam has little precursory direction or discussion, so after everyone finished, I asked the class, “So what’d you think?”
First there was only silence, which, understandably, is almost always the case the first week of school. Together, we sat in a collective and awkward discomfort, making no eye contact—though, my awkwardness was a feigned, calculated teaching maneuver. Eventually, a self-identified Mexican-American woman in her late-twenties raised her hand. I nodded to her and smiled.
She said, “Ok, fine, so these other things happened, but you can’t tell me that what they did to us isn’t a tragedy. They did it to us! To America! Innocent people died! There’s nothing worse than what happened on September 11th!”
Several students agreed, some were thinking, some disagreed with their eyes, and still others maintained their distance altogether.
I thanked her, and then asked the group, “So, why do you think the author decided to write this poem?”
The conversation picked up, but only after everyone agreed that 9/11 was unarguably, a tragedy. From there, folks speculated, discussed, criticized, and continued on. However, immediately following any meager consideration of whether or not the author’s assertions of American tyranny were founded, the first woman who had spoken would emphatically reiterate that, “…innocent people died! In America! Nothing was worse than what happened on September 11th!”
On the heels of her most recent reminder, the translator raised his hand. I gestured for him to continue.
He said, “Innocent people die all the time.”
She replied, “No. Not like then. They came into our country, and killed our citizens. They’re terrorists. They’re terrorists!”
He asked, “Do you know how many Afghani people are dead, and are dying still? Right now?”
The woman stood up, nearly enraged, “Do you know how many people died that day? 3,000, that’s how many. 3,000 people are dead!”
I walked through the room, stopping in what felt like the midpoint between the two students on opposite sides of the classroom.
From his seat, he said, “There are innocent people everywhere. There are innocent people, right now, sitting in classrooms just like this one. Two months ago, in Afghanistan, a college full of students, just like us, was bombed. Everyone died. I know that they died because I tried to save them. My friends have died. Families, wives, children, mothers…innocent people who had nothing to do with 9/11 are dying, every day.”
Unfazed, she repeated her speech, with its impassioned finale marking the hour of noon, and the end of our class period. I encouraged and acknowledged the value of different perspectives and experiences, reminded folks about the homework due the next day, and went in search of a much-needed cigarette.
Under the compressed and waterless desert sun, I walked the bazillion miles through the parking lot to my car, where I “found” a cigarette in my glove compartment, and then headed back to the campus, where my next class was soon starting.
My routine between classes was a clandestine and solitary rendezvous behind an out-of-the-way wall, where, before entering, I’d regress into a delinquent 12-year-old child afraid of getting caught, and carefully scan my surroundings for my father, despite knowing his presence was wholly unlikely.
No father in sight, I scurried around the corner, and literally smacked right into the translator, boldly relishing the last of his own hard-earned cigarette.
I swallowed my impulse to begin confessing or justifying my indiscretion, and asked, “How’s it going?”
He smiled, looked up at the sky for a few seconds, and said, “I’m ok. It’s important to talk about the truth. It’s sad, and it’s also important.”
I lit my cigarette and said, “If you’re ever looking for someone to talk to, there are places, and people…”
I couldn’t finish my sentence, couldn’t find a way to dive into my usual explanation of campus resources; I was thinking about a campus, but it was somewhere in Afghanistan, and rubble, children, and dead mothers.
“If you ever feel unsafe, or want support, let me know, ok? Especially if you feel unsafe—I promise I’ll have your back…” and we looked into each other’s faces with our hearts and our bullshit detectors, and then hugged.
In the summer, classes are four days a week, for nearly three hours each, because 16 weeks are crammed into eight. Typically, this constancy makes for an exhausted and endeared group. For the most part, this one was, save the occasional, yet always-cocked outcry of patriotism from the original icebreaker, which was always triggered by the translator’s assertion of anything remotely outside the box, and almost none of which was ever related to 9/11. More times than I can remember, I facilitated and mediated conversations and heated debates about the patriot’s perspective on Muslims, folks originally from the Middle East, and religious freedom in general. The translator rarely made blanket statements about Americans, and seemed to have beef against only George Bush and a few other decision-making leaders, which he was able to articulate fairly well, in spite of his limited yet burgeoning English vocabulary.
I never got involved with the opinions, but rather, discussed laws and facts, and encouraged them both to do research. Really, that was the point of the whole class. We discussed that, while emotionally driven opinions were most certainly valid, an argument can be even more powerful if you understand all of its perspectives; then you can fight with knowledge and strategy, as well.
Over time, their respective bold assertions morphed into dependable fodder for lively debate and analysis among classmates, and eventually, their ever-present tension resembled exasperating siblings or a crackle in the middle of the room, which the students and I learned how to dance around in order to maintain conversations.
Each student was required to do a persuasive research project about a controversial issue important to them, the most common of which tending to be the pro-legalization of pot, pro-lowering the drinking and/or driving age, and either side of abortion—followed by a sprinkling of environmental issues, immigration, and the benefits of taking mushrooms. Less common were topics related to human rights and access for lgbtq+ folks, however, over the years, I’d graded my fair share of holybrimstonegodhatesfagsdeadmarriageisbetweenamanandawoman papers, many of which were well-written and had received A’s, no matter how offensive or idiotic their opinions.
I rarely tell my students I’m queer, unless it’s relevant, extremely helpful, or I’m teaching at an art school. Occasionally, I’m outed if I run into a student at a restaurant or the grocery store while with my sweetheart, which is exactly what had happened that summer; I ran into the translator while my girlfriend and I were holding hands, walking down the street.
The translator always sat in the upper right-hand corner, among newly made friends, and at the greatest distance from the patriot. At the beginning of our sixth week, I introduced the research project, gave everyone the description and rubric, and then asked that they get into small groups and brainstorm about potential topics.
I sat at the head of the room and silently took attendance, a task that would take the appropriate gap of time before I would wander around and drop in on people’s conversations. While hunched over my grade book, a woman’s faux and boisterous whisper ripped through the room’s hush of small-group discussions.
“They’re just disgusting; they’re stupid and disgusting, and evil, and I fucking hate all of those fucking homos,” she said.
Not looking up, I listened as several students laughed in response, and tried to identify from where in the room it came.
“You can bet your ass I’m going to write about that. Marriage is sacred! That shit is perverted. I wish they’d all just fucking die off, or someone would just take care of it, already!”
Then came retching noises, and more cackling, but this time, the translator’s deep, full guffaw boldly cut through the others’. Involuntarily, my head shot up, and I looked directly into the back right corner of the room, which was at the exact moment the translator’s head came up from under a wave of laughter.
Our eyes on lock, I watched his deflate and fill with remorse.
Unable to linger, I dove for my bag on the floor. Hanging over my knees, my stomach curdling and stabby, I recognized my rippling and hollowly breathing as the beat before fear distributed itself throughout my body.
I forced myself to sit up and looked around the rest of the room.
The air had evaporated. An acute staleness replaced the familiar hum of dynamic enthusiasm. Several students must have been listening as well, including a member of the Patriot’s group, whom I knew to have a gay brother she loved very much. She raised her hand and said she had to leave early.
“You know, why don’t we all leave early; I’m not feeling very well,” I heard myself say, “Tomorrow, please arrive having chosen your topic, as well as a typed draft of your persuasive thesis statement and project outline.”
I packed my stuff and bolted out the door before anyone else.
The sickness sat heavy in my bones for the remainder of the day, and into the night. Relief finally came when my girlfriend got home, and my body could sob the somatic remnants against her strong chest.
I was confused by the intensity of my reaction, and by the lingering malaise in my heart. Of course it never feels good, or safe, to listen to hate speak about anyone, let alone a community to which I belonged, and in a space as personal as where I worked, but that wasn’t it. I suspiciously searched shadows on walls, tasted the air, and shuddered in the evening winds. I was inexplicably destabilized and tender. I wasn’t afraid for my physical safety; the fear was deeper, older, and sad.
The next day, I walked into class five minutes late to avoid having to repeat myself for the chronically tardy. The pregnant, collective silence watched me set down my bags and then greet them.
“So, as you’ve all heard me say many times, opposing ideas are excellent learning opportunities, and I love and encourage thoughtful debate and dissent, yes?”
They all nodded.
“However, there are certain lines that cannot be crossed, and one of them is safety. One of my duties as a teacher is to provide and maintain a classroom where every student knows I will not condone bullying, cruelty, or harassment.”
“Regardless of how strongly you may feel about something or someone, you must express yourself in a respectful manner. You may not say hateful or violent statements about any person or group of people. That is a boundary, and if it’s crossed, you will immediately be told to leave.”
I exchanged eye contact with each of the students, skipping quickly past the translator’s, and then landed on the young woman that vehemently hated gay people.
Later, in my alone place, I crouched in the one shady spot, a tiny crook of an ornamental, perpendicular angle, and played scrabble on my phone and smoked. The translator walked up, and asked if he could join me.
Neither of us talked. I studied a bug, and got distracted by wondering if ants ever spontaneously combust in the desert sun.
What was I supposed to say?
I hadn’t integrated all of the nuances of this situation, let alone figured out if or how to handle it—which, in my underdeveloped and still slightly weepy state, were a toss-up between:
a. Cutting the smoking-area chitchat with a student, or
b. Working through feeling betrayed by a fellow human.
I chose the former.
“Well, thanks [Translator], there’s no need, but I appreciate that.”
“I mean it, I really fucked up. I made a mistake and I wish I could take it back…I’m sorry.”
The translator and I looked at each other for the first time that day.
And it was then I understood why I had been so affected by what had happened.
I hadn’t been able to comprehend that, the translator—truth-teller, volunteer war medic, witness to monstrous and unjustifiable violence, and the only person in the room that knew I was queer—had laughed loudest of all.
With my revelation also came a break in my anxiety, and suddenly, I remembered that I already knew that everything was OK. He was a human, and that girl…was a run-of-the-mill homophobic jerk human (who, for what it’s worth, my gaydar had clocked from day one).
“So, have you decided what you’re doing for your final project?”
“Actually, yes, if it’s alright with you, I’d like to prove that George Bush should be convicted of attempted genocide and that the war on Afghanistan was a fraud.”
In the last hour of the last day of class, only two presentations remained—the patriot and the translator.
The patriot went first, and started by informing me that, over the weekend, she’d decided to change her topic because her Grandmother didn’t get a job at Home Depot because the manager didn’t speak Spanish.
Her new thesis was that there should be a law requiring every business in New Mexico to have a Spanish translator during business hours.
She began with, “When my Grandma came here from Mexico, she decided that my mom should never learn Spanish because she wanted her to fit in and be normal. And now, I don’t speak Spanish either. I mean, why isn’t Spanish normal? Now that whole piece of my family is gone!”
Then, she briefly explained the research she’d collected, and then finished, nearly in tears.
The last presentation was the translator.
His assertion ended up being that President Bush should be tried for his unjustifiable, and therefore criminal, decision to declare war on Afghanistan. His presentation was succinct, included no personal stories, and stuck to his research.
As always, upon the finish of a presentation, I asked the class if they had any questions for the presenter. The patriot rocked in her chair, and then raised her hand. I nodded.
“Look, ok..OK…I know!”
She burst into tears.
“I know you’re right, ok? I KNOW! I’m sorry, OK? I know he was wrong. But my cousin died that day! My best friend is dead. She’s dead, and I’ll never see her again!”
The patriot crumbled into her seat and began to sob.
Her tears became the loudest in a room full of tears, including mine, including the translator’s.
I sat beside her. We all sat, the whole class, in silence, in tears, together.