September 9th, 2011
Barely have time for a blog this week, but I can’t board yet another plane today for a mainland meeting without trying to scribble a few words about the start of the semester. Getting on a plane this week is a bit weird, to tell the truth. The fresh, energetic start of the academic season is oddly tainted with the forbidding clouds of memory, as the 10th anniversary of September 11 looms. You can’t open up an inbox these days without someone reminding you of an anniversary event. As everyone living here well knows, Newfoundland and Labrador played a memorable role as a way station for stranded passengers who were diverted to St John’s and, in much bigger numbers, to Gander. There are scheduled services and special ambassadorial events, wreaths to be laid, speeches to be made, probably tears to be shed in recollection. There is a fine line between honouring the local generosity shown to so many strangers and boasting with too much pride about what any people, any nation, any community would do under the same circumstances. I have been watching that line uneasily all week.
We all recall what we were doing. I was in my old—pre-deanship—office in English, in the Arts and Admin Building. Yes, it was only ten years ago but a lot of profs in my corridor still hadn’t figured out how useful the Internet was, if you can believe it. It was a non-teaching day. I was at my screen, browsing the morning’s news on various sites. First, on the CBC site, my go-to source of information, there was some text about an airplane crashing into one of the Twin Towers. Huh? I flipped over to CNN. Similar text, some alarming speculation, an image of the first tower in flames. Then everything went black. The site crashed. I went out into the hallway, started telling people something was happening. Some already knew. A prof who still defiantly held on to his American citizenship and whose family lived in NY City barreled over to my computer screen to see what he could. I flipped from CBC to other reliable sources. He gaped in disbelief. More alarming text, no images, yet another plane… it was at once horrifying and surreal. He ran back to his office, made a few calls, and fled the building for home. I decided I had to do the same.
The rest is a history of shared television images, as anyone who could watched the startling images of the burning towers and then of the towers falling, people running, NY engulfing in a haze of grey-ash debris. Unreal city.
The students we have been greeting this week at various orientation sessions from over 80 countries have come here to learn and study and experience major life changes. There is nothing more optimistic than the start of an academic year. Summer is fading but the sun is till high enough in the sky and the breezes are friendly enough to feel warm on the skin. Expectation is obvious on every face. The unknown is spread before new students like a beautiful giant carpet. There is lots of time, or so it seems, to stride through a successful program of study, lots of time to do one’s best. Most of the students were pretty young when the Twin Towers fell, and I have absolutely no idea how they grew up to process the event, what sorts of impressions, opinions, or attitudes they have acquired in its wake. It couldn’t possibly have the same effect on them as it did to those of us who watched it as adults, in real time, in shock and horror. But they have grown up in a world deeply marked by all of it, and the seemingly endless inventory of images in circulation ever since.
This is, therefore, a week of contradictions – optimism is rampant, despite the memory or fact of the violence of that day and its aftermath. Long may it thrive.