Near misses “Did you have a question?” I asked a student who seemed to be waiting after class until all of my other students had left.
“It’s personal,” she told me as she stroked a string of dirty blond hair away from her left eye. She didn’t move. “If you don’t mind, we’ll talk when everyone leaves.”
‘Everyone’ didn’t really mean all of her classmates. When the chatty young man who’d been sitting next to her finally left, she started to talk. Others were still in nearby rows.
“I’ve been working for Muslims for years,” she told me, “almost since I left home when I was fourteen. I’ve been working and taking care of myself ever since. They gave me a job. I’ve opened stores for them. They’ve been good to me. But...”
I’d turned away when I noticed another young student, a woman, standing by the door. “I’ll wait ‘til you’re finished,” she said, then looked at a book she was holding.
We’d spent most of our class discussing Islam, and the causes of 9/11, how the two related. “How old are you?” I asked when I turned back to the young woman seated in front of me.
“18,” she said, although she looked much older. I noticed her wedding band.
“And you’re married?” I asked.
“No, I’m a waitress. It keeps me out of trouble. But I only work lunch hours.”
Why all of that seemed important, I wasn’t sure. I’d read her first introductory test, a diagnostic; according to her writing skill, she seemed to be one of my better students. Now I saw her as precocious, wise in ways many 18 year olds would never be.
“The brother of the man who hired me,” she said, “now that you’ve explained some aspects of Islam, the documentaries, I can better understand much that I’ve heard and seen. I’ve worked with Muslims from India and Pakistan, from other parts of the world. I started understanding their language. I’ll have to alter some of what I’ve written. You’ve given me reasons to change my opinion. That’s unusual. I’m pretty hardheaded. Do you mind if I wait until next week to turn in my homework?”
“Certainly,” I said, accustomed to such a request. Others had asked the same, but for different reasons. She stood, smiled, and walked away.
My other student approached. “I’m sorry, but I wanted to say something in class, but I was afraid to. I didn’t want to upset the others.”
I explained that our room was a safe place where all of us were free to speak as we pleased.
“It’s about 9/11,” she said, “ my mother and grandmother and I were there. I was afraid I’d start to cry.”
“Your tears are treasured here,” I told her. “Why don’t you write about what all of you, each of you, saw, and e-mail it to me. I would appreciate your doing that,” I said. She promised she would, maybe later in the day.
Hours later, when I was choosing poems for a reading I had promised to do that night, I still wondered what she would send me.
Mine wasn’t an ordinary poetry reading. In the newly renovated building that had once been an Army-Navy store just a few doors up from mine, Wayne, a Brooklyn artist and his partner, Sally, were celebrating their grand opening. Following a pair of talented teenage violinists from Gibson Middle School, I was to read. As a backdrop were 11’ X 6’ canvasses, six of them side by side, impressionistic pieces that represented Wayne’s response to 9/11. He’d asked me to read poems about that gruesome day.
“Please gather closer,” I asked everyone. Fifty people drew near, in a semicircle no more than five feet from me. I told them how shocked and saddened I had been, that I felt compelled to to go to New York immediately after as if part of me had been injured and traumatized. “I’ll only read five or six,” I told them.
And I did. With each one, the group became more and more quiet. “Thank you,” I said, when I’d read the last, relieved that, a few times during the reading, I’d been able to keep from crying.
Regular noises returned. People talked and looked more closely at the huge canvasses I no longer stood in front of. I felt drained, but content that my poems had done what I’d wanted them to do. Sometimes, that doesn’t happen.
That’s what I was thinking as a young man approached me. I’d known him as a friend of Wayne’s, another New Yorker who’d come to make his mark on our city. He’d found a building a block away on Main, had turned it into an impressive art studio. Both he and Wayne were vanguards of change.
“Thank you so much for your poems,” he said. “I’m Jeff. I can’t tell you how much they meant to me. I was there that day,” he said.
All other sounds around me seemed to subside. “At the Twin Towers?” I asked, astonished.
“Yes,” he said, quietly, “September 11th is my birthday. My sister, who worked on the 102nd floor, was going to celebrate with me.”
I shuddered. Did his sister die that day? I didn’t want to ask. But I had to know. I stared at Jeff; I couldn’t speak.
“She went in early, so that she could do a few things, then came out to meet me.”
“Then we saw the planes, heard the sounds. Immediately, I headed for the Towers. Everyday for the next three months, I worked at the site.”
I couldn’t move. My mouth felt dry, as if Jeff had read my poems back to me while bleeding, covered in dust and ash. He told me how, years later, he developed cancer from exposure caused by his work at Ground Zero.
“I’ve recovered now,” he said, answering me before I’d asked that question, “just a little short of breath sometimes.”
“Please come to my class,” I said. I wanted to honor his work; that would be a good way. My students would appreciate him as a hero. I know I did.
We shook hands. I wanted to sit down, but there were no chairs at Wayne’s. So I said goodbye, walked to my store two doors down. I was trembling.
Upstairs, I fell into my chair, guided my computer to the Net. There I saw a message from my student, the one who’d promised to tell me what her mother and grandmother had seen that day. She wrote that her grandmother had been working on the 100th floor, but that a friend had arranged an interview for a better job a few blocks away. Her appointment had been scheduled for just before the planes hit.
I gasped about the near misses I’d heard about, about the tragedy’s reach, that it had come to Danville, that its effects were still being felt here in our safe and uncrowded city. I knew I’d take those stories with me this weekend, that I’d think of them often on my way to the tenth anniversary of that special site at the heart of Manhattan.
B. Koplen 9/10/11