From Adversity to Inspiration
From the Goucher Quarterly, Winter 2011
There is something about anniversary commemorations-especially of sad and tragic events-that understandably sparks individual and group memories and recollections. These recollections can seem self-indulgent, or even maudlin, but they bring us together and somehow make us feel better. They hold clues to how we conduct ourselves in the present.
This past September 11, we held a recollection at Goucher of what we had experienced on campus ten years earlier, and I was asked to recall that tragic day as I had personally experienced it.
It was, as so many have remembered and remarked, a beautiful, clear morning, September 11, 2001. There was a trace of early autumn in the air, and it was a thrill for me to see Goucher students walking to and from their early classes with a spring in their step, an air of optimism, yet still combined with a trace of trepidation, about something new. I regarded the first-year students that fall as my classmates. I was a new arrival, too. I had been on the job as president for just two months and ten days-I had a sunny innocence, an optimism, an enthusiasm of my own, a sense that nothing could possibly go wrong.
That morning we had the first meeting of a search committee looking for a new academic dean, in the conference room next to my office, and also my first meeting ever of the Executive Committee of the Goucher College Board of Trustees. I've participated in at least 73 of those Executive Committee meetings now. But this one was the first, and so I was a little nervous about how it would go. I was in a new role and really did not know exactly what to expect.
At some point, our colleague Tom Phizacklea, vice president for finance, came into the room and handed me a note: A terrible accident had occurred; a plane had flown into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. I announced the news. From there on, it's a blur. Information came in waves, and it was all very bad. Everything stopped. Any semblance of doing the college's business as usual that morning was clearly ridiculous. We didn't really know what to do. One of the trustees, George Thomsen, offered a prayer, and we eventually dispersed. I remember hurried conferences in the hallways that led to the suspension of regular classes and the convening of special seminars about what we all knew would be a changed world. For some of us, it was a flashback to the '60s-to the so-called "teach-ins" about the Vietnam War, where people who seemed to have all the answers spoke.
For the rest of the day, most of us wandered. We checked to see if everyone was okay, and we worried along with members of the Goucher community who had family in the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, or on stranded airplanes. There were drumming circles in the residential quad, songs, and poetry-a kind of congeniality and conviviality inspired by panic and a search for comfort and companionship. I remember that a new freshman-her name was Max Weselcouch-asked me if we could have dinner together; she and I settled in with a group in the Stimson dining hall and talked for what seemed like hours. We had no answers (we barely knew what questions to ask), but it was comforting just to get to know each other.
Many of us wandered that night, too. I remember those who did it with me-especially Professor Tom Kelliher from the Math and Computer Science Department. That's the night he became my friend. We and others were all in and out of the residence halls, along the paths and in the nooks and crannies of campus, just wondering what might come next and trying to reassure the students. I remember feeling very vividly that I was personally responsible for the well-being of more than a thousand of other people's children. My own were safe-my daughter then a senior at her college in New England, my son a senior at his high school in Washington, DC-but how could we comfort the parents who had sent theirs to us for an education and a new phase of life?
Every cliché about 9/11 is true, and yet none is adequate: The world changed. We lost our innocence. We became wary of potential terrorists, and sometimes, horribly, of each other. Things would never be the same again. But the sense of community we all felt that day on the Goucher campus set the tone here for the years ahead.
In the days and weeks that followed, we learned about and adapted to each other at an abnormally fast pace. For me at least, any tentativeness about the relationships we would ordinarily form at the start of a school year was swept away by the unfolding events and our reaction to them. In the face of this almost abstract adversity, I believe we learned to care even more about each other-and to indulge ourselves in every possible opportunity to come together as a community.
We're ten years older now, all of us, wiser perhaps, less innocent, but determined to keep discouragement at bay. At Goucher we have managed to find hope and to make time to explore the big issues confronting our community, our country, and our world, despite some of the madness out there. Our new first-year students this year were seven or eight years old at the time of 9/11, and we want them to join us in reverting to what may seem like an old-fashioned idealism. There are leaders to train, and there is important work to be done. We're on it.