"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Post-Academic Remembers 9/11

Everybody has a story about where they were and what they were doing when they first got the news. I wouldn't really think my story was particularly memorable, except that, in the context of this blog, the fall semester of 2001 was when my entrance to academe conincided with my exit from teaching high school. The experience of 9/11 was very different in those two worlds -- and perhaps I should have recognized it as a sign of things to come.

So, this post isn't really about 9/11 per se, the tragedy, the victims, the political or military fallout (go everywhere else to read about those) -- it's about two ways of responding to "real" world events.

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First, some background: In September 2001, I had just begun my first semester as a graduate student. I was in a terminal M.A. program because I wasn't sure that I wanted to go on for a Ph.D. at the time. Technically, I was a full-time graduate student, taking three classes and also working as a T.A. But, in addition, because the T.A. salary was so low and because I wasn't sure where my career was heading, I kept my high school teaching job part-time. Long story short, what this meant was that every morning I taught 11th and 12th grade English at an urban charter school from 8:00 a.m. to noon. Three days out of the week, I left promptly and commuted over to Master's U., where I sat in on the class I was TAing for from 1:00-2:00 and then held office hours. Later, I went to class. On the longest day of the week, I left my house at 7:00 a.m., taught my high school classes, TAed for the college classes, held my office hours, attended grad classes that met from 3:00-6:00 and 6:30-9:30, and got home around 10:00, at which time I settled down for some dinner and a few hours of grading, studying, writing, or prepping for the next morning's classes.

It was exhausting, to say the least, and I quit the high school job at the beginning of spring semester, but here are two vignettes, memories of 9/11, that capture, perhaps, some differences between academic and nonacademic life, differences that have since come to be more important than they seemed at the time.

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A little after 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was sitting at my desk in a windowless classroom in a rundown school building east of the Anacostia River. While I was going over lesson plans, my 11th graders were, more or less quietly, taking a quiz.

All of a sudden, I hear some shouting and door slamming in the hall. Oh no, I think to myself. What now? My students -- mostly at-risk kids who hadn't done so well in the regular public schools -- were easily distracted, and some disturbance in the hall could easily disrupt the entire class period's plans. We'd have to redo the quiz at the very least ...

Just as I'm having these thoughts and noticing my students looking up from their quizzes and rolling their eyes at each other, the door to my classroom bursts open, as Crazy Kid sticks his head in and shouts at the top of his lungs, "We're under attaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!! Y'all better take COVER, WE"RE UNDER ATTAAAAAAAAACK!!!!!!"

He slams the door and runs down the hall, and I hear him do the same thing to the classroom next door.

Not entirely surprising. Crazy Kid is known for his antics and interruptions. But. Great. Now my students are all talking to each other, yelling stuff back at Crazy Kid (who is truly insane and spends more time in the halls and the principal's office than in class):

"What the fuck?!"

"Yo, what Crazy Kid be smokin' today?"

"You muthafuckahs, shut the fuck up. I'm tryin' to take my quiz, yo!"

"Ms. Future Recent Ph.D., you gonna do something about Crazy Kid? He sound like he need some help today, like he ain't take his medication or somethin' '" (some whistling and high fives all around for this crack -- Crazy Kid usually gets his due with or without teacher interference).

"Ahem. Settle down, everybody, please. Crazy Kid is not in our class, and I'm sure Mr. Hall Monitor will make sure Crazy Kid is taken care of. Now, please, let's get back to those quizzes."

So, they start to settle down. Papers rustle. Pencils start scratching away. A few muffled comments are whispered to stifled laughter.

We can still hear Crazy Kid out in the hall arguing with Hall Monitor and Assistant Principal, but then ... there's an announcement over the P.A. system:

"Teachers, please keep your students in class with your doors locked until further notice. There has been a suspected terrorist attack. The safest place for you and your students is in your classrooms. The building is on lockdown until further notice. We will keep you informed as details become available."

My students and I just look at each other. One kid asks, quite seriously, "Does this mean we still have to take the quiz?"

And then more information starts to emerge. There is another P.A. announcement. The World Trade Center. The Pentagon. Parents will be contacted. Arrangements will be made. In the meantime, an hour later, we're still on lockdown in the classroom, and everyone's getting restless. One kid asks if he can go to the bathroom, and I let him go. We wait anxiously to see what news he will return with.

He returns fifteen minutes later with a radio! I have no idea where he got it, and he won't say. We all huddle around the radio and listen, hardly talking ... except, the mother of one of the kids works at the Pentagon, and he's starting to freak out ... and he says he has to go to the office and see if he can get in touch with her ... he doesn't care if he gets in trouble for leaving class ... and so he leaves and doesn't come back ...

And, when he goes, it's as if the reailty of the situation is finally starting to sink in. The kids are visibly worried about what's going on, and I have no idea what to tell them. These are tough kids in a tough neighborhood. They're used to violence. The last time we were on lockdown was when a car filled with suspected gang members, visibly armed, was slowly driving in circles around the school for nearly an hour before police got it to move away.

But this is different. As we listen to the radio, "Do you think we'll be next?" one kid asks, "Do you think the terrorists will come after us? Do you think they'll bomb the rest of the city? Do they have nukes?"

Another kid answers, "Naw, dawg, don't no terrorists care 'bout poor black people. Naw, not when they can blow up rich white people. We 'bout in the safest place we can be out here!!"

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Eventually, lockdown ended. Everyone got home safely. The kid's mother who worked at the Pentagon was OK.

But there was no school the next day ... This charter school was run by retired military and drew a fair percentage of its students from the nearby military base. The kid in my class wasn't the only one with a parent who worked at the Pentagon ...

Everyone, whether neighborhood kids or base kids, needed time to process. Their reactions were visceral and fundamental:

Who are we? What is our relationship to the world outside the microcosms of home and school? Has that relationship changed? What does the rest of the world think of us? Who are we as Americans -- in general and as a specific group marginalized by race and class? How are we united? How are we divided? What does the future hold? What is our role to be?

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At Master's U., classes for the rest of the day were cancelled, but the next day, the university was open. Professors could make their own decisions about whether to hold classes or not. Old and Boring Theory Prof decided to hold class.

No one could think of anything but the attacks of the previous day, but we didn't talk about it. Old and Boring Theory Prof sat and read from his notes of thirty years ago, as he did every week, and we sat and listened and took notes for three hours. No one said anything or expressed any emotion.

It was as though nothing at all had happened.

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Until MLA, that is. There've been plenty of panels devoted to the subject in the ten years since.

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