In Class, the
Day After

By Grant Reeher

It’s September 12, the day after the terrorist attack on the United States, and I wonder: What can I say to the students? What should we do in class today? I’ve talked to my colleagues in the past few hours about what they’ve done, or intend to do, about discussing the tragedy with students. The faculty have been understandably cautious in the way they’ve conducted class—discussing the international context for this horrific event, and so on. I decide to simply let the students talk, and then see where things go.
      Two of my students’ families were affected personally by the event. They are not in class, of course. The rest are quiet. It’s hard to tell if they want to talk. I am asked if this is the worst thing I have ever seen in my life. The premise of their question puts me in touch with my mortality—the distance in the number of years lived between myself and the students. Yes, it is the worst thing I have actually seen, but not the worst thing I have watched the world experience.
      Then their anger comes, anger about many things. They can’t believe what they are seeing on TV in the aftermath, the celebrations in the streets of the Islamic world. I consider discussing the nature of political coverage by the media, but instead, without planning or thinking, really, I take a more personal approach. I try to push them not to hate, to accept their own anger, but not to let that inform their judgment on what our nation should do. They challenge me: How should they feel about those celebrating? We should feel sorry for them, I argue. But they challenge me again: Why? There is no place else to go with this question and remain honest. We should feel sorry for them because they are demeaning their own souls. Because each of us walks around with this capacity in our hearts, and because life is the constant struggle to listen to the better angels of our natures.
      Rarely in class do we professors set forward our most basic beliefs, our faiths—and there are some good reasons why we don’t. But there is no choice for me today. I share a story about a regret in my own life, from my own college years. In 1980 I let my anger over the hostage crisis lead me to go and watch the burning of an Iranian flag on campus. A friend stood alone among the crowd and protested it. I wish now that person had been me.
      Where will this class go this semester? I cannot say. But at least we are listening to each other.

     Grant Reeher is a professor of political science in the Maxwell School and the College of Arts and Sciences. He wrote this essay about his class, Democratic Theory and Practice.
U.S. Navy photo by PH2 (AW) Jim Watson
A flag hangs from a soot-covered building near the World Trade Center.

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Main Home Page Contents Chancellor's Message Opening Remarks
Reflections In Memoriam Time of Terror Lessons of Hope
Future Impact Voices

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