The transition between Summer and Fall seems to inspire the humanist in me. Of course, back-to-school schedule changes seem to put many of us in a contemplative mood, as do the Jewish High Holidays. My family and friends seem to have countless birthdays, anniversaries, and milestones during the month of September.
And then there’s September 11, a day that seems to bring back memories for anyone who can remember it.
Looking back at that fall of 2001, it was also a time when I was trying to figure things out, and a period of time that would shape my life and career. I was living in Olympia, Washington, where I’d moved the year before, and about to start college for the third time at the small state college there, Evergreen.
That past year had been spent trying to figure out my next steps. I had worked several jobs, including freelance music writing, cleaning offices and food service. I was relieved to have found the newest one, with the local YMCA’s before-and-after school childcare program. Even though the job required me to be there before 7 AM each morning, I liked it - I liked the kids, I got along well enough with the women I worked with, and I liked serving snacks, playing soccer, and doing homework and crafts.
The Tuesday of September 11 was the second week of the school year for the kids, but Evergreen’s Fall Quarter had yet to start. I heard about the first attacks on the radio first when driving to the school, then watched the second tower fall on television in the library, away from the kids shuffling into the cafeteria. My coworkers, both speculated. I felt like I had been punched. All I could say when pressed by another co-worker was “just think about the role America plays in the world”.
I was in shock, of course, but also at a loss for reaction. I had no real ties to New York or DC, had never visited either city. But yet I was watching the events of the day unfold, full of horror I’d never known. I had to keep it together enough to get through the morning shift then return in the afternoon. I scanned the kids, I exchanged glances with the parents. I watched the kids attentively in those next few days, looking for clues to what they saw and heard. I wondered how I was supposed to be in the world in response.
The next week, when my own school year started, I was feeling lost as ever, wondering if I should even be there, in college, in the Pacific Northwest, far away from Texas. My past attempts at college had not been successful, and yet I knew I wanted to engage with ideas, to do new things, to become a serious, intellectual person. I was enrolled in a program that quarter (the school works on a “coordinated studies” model) on the theme of Tragedy, taught by a folklorist, a literary scholar, and a classical philosopher.
One often under-discussed element of humanities education is this: reading texts in a group is a transformative experience.
That fall of 2001, I met with and talked about tragedy and goodness with a few dozen strangers. We read the Greek tragedies, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, and Martha Nussbaum’s book, the Fragility of Goodness.
My fellow students and I were a diverse bunch, ranging from 17 year-olds from the Seattle suburbs to transfer students like me, to older folks who were coming back to school after serving in the military or raising families. None of us were used to doing it, but in those few months, we talked and wrote and thought about serious ideas in ways we hadn’t before. It was a light, for me in a dark time, and it shaped the way I thought.
Studying the humanities was, in that scary time in my life, what I needed to keep moving forward. I needed to find grounding, ways of thinking about and understanding humanity, goodness, about tragedy, in order to be able to even hope of doing good in the world.
Today, I find myself in a similar position, perhaps older and wiser. I’m completely overwhelmed by the political and ethical questions in the world around me. It’s my privilege, as a teacher, to explore this with my community.