A perverse theorem keeps proving itself true in my relatively brief time as a teacher at Penn: the students give back to me far more than I can ever impart to them. They help me to get through things, instead of it being the other way around.
A year ago, in the early afternoon of Sept. 11, I sat in Bennett Hall with the door closed and wrote a bluffing listserv e-mail to the enrollees of English 145. I couldn't see their faces, and longed to. Our opening class of the term had been canceled, as had all classes of that day. I could only imagine what these 12 advanced nonfiction writers looked like, sounded like, twitched like. Now I'd have to wait a week to know. A week? You could have said eternity, for the way things chaotically felt. Would the world be around in a week? All I wanted -- a guy on the far side of 50 -- was to be seated in a semicircle with some exquisitely alert and talented kids, on old leather sofas and metal folding chairs, in a second floor room at Kelly Writers House.
In my mask of someone seeming to be in control, or reasonable control, which they were probably seeing right through, I wrote:
I have no special wisdom whatever to impart about today's events.... I was on Amtrak riding blissfully up to Upenn this morning when all this happened. Somewhere outside of Baltimore, I heard the man across the aisle on his cell phone say, "What? You're kidding aren't you?" I wondered if his tech stocks had taken a dive. Well, it wasn't that, but I didn't really learn what it was until I walked into Bennett Hall an hour later.... All this turmoil we are in at the moment will somehow pass. I think I've lived long enough to assure each of you that.
Anita, whose parents are from South Asia, whose family religion is Hindu, was in that course. It wasn't very long before she was reading to us aloud -- beautifully, bravely -- of what it felt like to be a woman of brownish skin and unwaspish name in the midst of our new paranoia and numbing rage. She told about going downtown on a bus to K-Mart, and of how a man leered in at her, over top of her, it almost seemed, as he gripped the pole beside her seat. We loved the story -- which isn't to say we didn't tear it apart critically (if kindly). The way 145ers express their admiration is by insisting something be a whole lot better.
Maite, who is of first generation Hispanic descent, and who's from metropolitan New Jersey, read to us of standing with her parents a week or so after Sept. 11, their arms interlocked, as they gazed across a seeming calm body of water at all the ruin. Again, we loved the story, even as we told her all that we, as an envious group of storytellers, thought was missing, or unearned in its emotion.
Some of the best pieces of that term never made reference to "it" -- while continually playing off the fact. As part of her work for another course, Megan, a stylist, traveled on a bus with classmates to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. She described the trip and the museum in a piece for 145. Her stroke was the decision to pack most of her feelings -- in a story tailor-made for emotion -- beneath the surface of what she actually saw and heard, the way Hemingway does, so that we were experiencing more than we were understanding, and not least about the Holocaust itself. Believe it or not, the story had a profane -- even sexy -- ending, which I think somehow made the obscenity of what had just happened to us as a people take on momentary clarity.
Everything seemed freighted with new meaning. We read a story in the bulk pack by Philip Gourevitch of The New Yorker. It's about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, from his magnificent book, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families. This passage brought us to our knees: "...great and sustained destruction requires great ambition. It must be conceived as the means toward achieving a new order, and although the idea behind that new order may be criminal and objectively very stupid, it must also be compellingly simple and at the same time absolute."
I see now that what we were doing was telling ourselves stories to survive, to heal. In a sense, that's always true but perhaps never more so than last fall. The same thing happened in the other writing course I am privileged to teach here, English 155: reading and writing the pieces with a special and only half-conscious urgency. (Mary, one of the 11 gifted students in that course of particularly gifted people, spent the entire term documenting life inside an Afghan restaurant down by Independence Mall. She was there two and three times a week.)
The great Danish writer Isak Dinesen once said, "All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them." Another writer, the essayist Roger Rosenblatt, has said: "So much of living is made up of storytelling that one might conclude that it is what we were meant to do -- to tell one another stories, fact or fiction, as a way of keeping afloat." I believe that must have been happening in different guises and forms all across this university, in every classroom and administrative office, whether up at Wharton or down at Penn Engineering or over at Penn Law: a swamped campus seeking to right itself, partly on the strength of stories. As we, the fortunate living, whose burden is memory, face this anniversary, I say: let the new stories roll down like waters.
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