Letter 7: “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”

Dear Mr. Wallace,

It was just another morning in Mrs. K’s fourth grade class.  Mrs. K was at the chalkboard when another adult – presumably an officer staffer – came into the room and whispered something into her ear.  Mrs. K turned to the class and told us that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded shortly after liftoff.  Being ten-year-olds, I don’t think we really knew what to do with that information. At recess, many resorted to one of the few coping mechanisms available to fourth graders – humor.  We made jokes about that which we could not grasp.

It was an August evening in the summer of 1997.  I was working the evening shift at the coffee bar.  As we were preparing for the rush of customers, my supervisor broke the news to me that Princess Diana had been killed in a horrific car crash.  News circulated that evening, mostly through rumors and hearsay.  As the next few days passed, the details were filled in, and a world mourned the loss of the People’s Princess.

It was late morning in spring of 1999.  I had finished my morning classes and went back to my dorm room to write a paper that was due later in the week.  I can’t work in silence, so I turn on my roommate’s television simply to provide some background noise.  After all, is there anything really worth watching on daytime television?  All there was to be found was news coverage from Columbine High School.  I was too engrossed in my essay and the volume was turned down too low, so the gravity of the moment didn’t hit me until later when I heard other students discussing the massacre.

It was about 7 o’clock in the when the phone rang on that September morning.  My mother-in-law called to tell us that a jetliner had crashed into one of the World Trade Center buildings.  I told my wife, who was in the bedroom getting ready for work.  We had been in our new condo for only a week, so we didn’t even have our cable hooked up yet.  The only means of getting more information was the radio during our one-mile drive to work (my wife and I were both teachers at a small K-12 private school at the time, and this new condo was exactly a mile from the school).

Once we got to work, we heard bits and pieces of the news.  A second plane had hit the second tower.  Another had crashed into the Pentagon.  Rumors and falsehoods of other crashes and other hijackings swirled about as it seemed no one really knew what was happening.

As the school day was about to begin, the principal got on the intercom to announce that everyone – teachers, staff, and students – was to report to the auditorium.  Before the day had started, it was over; school was cancelled for the day.  The office staff manned the phones to contact parents to come get their kids, many of whom had just arrived at home after dropping them off.  We teachers babysat the kids as they left a few at a time.  The school counselor had laid out long strips of butcher paper for the kids to draw on.  Someone had plugged in a radio out of earshot from the students and tuned it to the news.  I think we teachers were more scared than the kids, but we had to keep our game faces on, at least until after they left.

One of my students, a tenth grader I think, was happy to get to go home early, but bummed out that her friends at other schools might not be so lucky.  She jokingly said she might call in a threat to her friends’ school to get them out of class for the day.  I gave her my stern teacher look that successfully scared the bejesus out of her.

In less than an hour, the auditorium was cleared of students.  We could finally take a breath.  The principal said a quick prayer and sent us home.  He said plan on a regular day tomorrow, unless we heard otherwise.

My wife and I drove over to her parents’ house to watch the news.  Tom Brokaw narrated the events as the smoke-filled skyline loomed in the background.  We watched the Towers collapse.  We saw the burning hole in the side of the Pentagon.  We viewed the aerial shots of the crater in Pennsylvania.  Although most early reports of the events were sketchy at best, we stayed glued to the screen.  Mr. Brokaw wasn’t telling us much we hadn’t heard already, but we couldn’t turn it off.

We did finally switch off the television to go get something to eat.  I’m sure there was plenty of food in the house, but it seemed easier to drive over to Wendy’s for some burgers.  There was an odd vibe in the dining room.  Everyone had a rather glazed-over look in their eyes.  Yet everyone was quick to share the latest they had heard from this or that source.  Complete strangers engaging each other in conversation.  There seemed to be a sense of consolation in numbers.

As we picked at our burgers and fries – we were hungry, but no one really felt like eating – a bit of the reality began to sink in.  What did today’s events mean for our future?  Not just as in the grand scheme of things, but for us at that table.  I was still at a draftable age, as was my brother-in-law.  If we went to war against this enemy who provoked us on such a large scale, would I find myself on the frontlines?  Was this just the beginning of future attacks?  Not more than a few weeks prior I had heard reports out of the Middle East of a suicide bomber blowing up a pizzeria.  Would our restaurants and shopping malls ever be safe again?

My wife and I went home later that afternoon.  To be honest, most of the rest of the day was a blur.  Life returned to normal, or at least the new sense of normal in which we have all lived for the last eight years.

You begin “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” with the word “Synecdoche.”  Your experience of the Horror was a microcosm of the experiences of 300 million Americans on that Tuesday morning in September of 2001.  We all experienced that same sense of shock and utter disbelief.  We all somehow found ourselves congregated around television sets and on the phone with loved ones.  We all cried the tears as we lost a part of our innocence. 

We’ve had too many of these “I remember when…” moments.  For my parents’ generation, it was the assassination of President Kennedy.  For me and my generation, it is the above-mentioned events, climaxed by the Horror of September, 2001.  What will it be for my kids?

These events seem to have the same effect on all of us.  The shock.  The glazed look in the eyes.  The need for human contact, even if with complete strangers.  You describe your hometown of Bloomington as “folks [who] keep to themselves… and they watch massive, staggering amounts of television” (133).  Synecdoche.  I think that describes 95% of America.  We all keep to our own little lives and experience the outside world vicariously through our television sets. 

Yet when something of this magnitude descends upon us, we gravitate toward each other.  There is solace and comfort in numbers, even in the midst of strangers.  We forget about ourselves and the things that normally keep us apart, and come together for those brief moments.  We don’t know what it is that draws us to places like Mrs. Thompson’s living room, but find ourselves there.  Sharing hugs and tears, small talk and silence.  Together.

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