Sunday, July 10, 2005

Word from London

Several of my former students are there right now studying in a summer program. When I awoke to the news on Thursday, I thought of them immediately. The campus they're on sits close to the Baker Street and Edgware Road tube stations.

An email from London today from J., one of my fave kids. He says he was in the Underground on the Piccadilly Line, about three trains in front of the one on which the bomb went off. He was coming up out of the King's Cross station when he noticed the lights dim. People thought it was a power outage. He went on his way and made it to his train to the coast and then a ferry to Ireland for the weekend. He writes that some parents of the kids who are over there studying offered to fly all 50 of them home for safekeeping. Everyone chose to stay.

The flashbacks to 9/11 are all too obvious. These students were in high school when that happened.

I remember we had been in classes only a few weeks that fall semester. I was teaching an 8 a.m. lecture class of more than 100 students when the building's technology supervisor popped his head in the door and said, "A plane has crashed into the Pentagon." That's all he said.

At the time, we couldn't get cable TV or internet connection in that lecture hall, so I excused the class early, with everyone fidgeting like mad to get out of there. It was the last class of the day. When we adjourned, everyone rushed to TVs in other parts of the building or in the student center or dorms. I found one just as the towers started to crumble and I remember saying out loud to no one in particular, "Nothing will ever be the same again."

At noon that day, hundreds of students, professors and administrators gathered under bright sunshine on the quad. There were prayers and "God Bless America." There were TV news crews taping the whole scene. It was eerie. No one knew quite what to do or how to behave. Over the grapevine came the story that within a half hour of the first tower being hit, the Secret Service had swarmed onto campus to grab the grand-daughter of a former president out of her class and spirit her off to some safe location.

By the next day, we were back to the regular schedule, urged by the administration to carry on as usual, but to let students talk about how they were feeling.

In the lecture class were four Muslim girls -- sisters from Saudi, two from Bahrain. They wore long skirts and headscarves, but in every other way behaved like every other student. I spoke with "Naheem," one of the sisters, after class that second day. She said her parents back in the Middle East wanted her to drop out and fly home immediately. They were afraid of what would happen to her here. I urged her to stay, but she ended up going home for a couple of weeks and then returning to finish out the term. She had changed. Now she asked to take her quizzes and exams in my office because, she said, she was too nervous and distracted to be in a crowded classroom during tests. She often fell asleep in class because she didn't sleep well at night. She all but stopped answering or asking questions about the material.

After that semester, I never saw any of those girls on campus again. There seemed to be far fewer Middle Eastern students that spring. You can't really blame them. It was an uneasy time to be one of "them."

Later I'll relate the story of "Patrick," who used the tragedy of 9/11 to go walkabout from school for a few weeks.

But for now, send some good vibes to those 19- and 20-year-old kids spending their summer in an un-air-conditioned dorm in North London, probably sleeping a little more fitfully these nights. In their young lives they've experienced more than their share of terrible events.


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