Stunned disbelief coupled with shared grief filled the days after September 11. Vivid images and a painful mix of emotions mark this moment in our memory. For many, this day of remembrance will most likely lead to journeys on painful pathways of mind and heart. One cannot imagine how it would not, particularly in the case of those who lost family and friends.
However, what also come to mind in reflection on the year since the attacks are the courageous responses that do great honor to the memory of those lost. In the moments, days, weeks, and months after 9/11, individuals and organizations nationally and internationally—all reeling in this painful shared experience—rallied to respond.
We immediately saw courage in the firefighters, police officers, and bystanders who risked their lives to help those injured in the attacks. We saw the emotional courage of the ministers, counselors, friends, and neighbors who reached out to share and ease the pain and suffering of those whose family and friends were forever taken. We saw the courage of our armed forces, particularly the young men and women who flew halfway around the world to take action in response to this terrorist action. We saw a host of people and programs that rose up to raise money and provide relief as part of the rebuilding process. And on college campuses nationally and internationally, we saw educators courageously convene dialogues, engage communities, and plan programs as their active response to leverage education to fight this kind of terror and hate. But for many of us, courage shown in other ways is equally inspiring.
About 10 days after September 11, I had to take my first plane flight. Of course my wife was not happy, but I had made a commitment to colleagues at the Foothill De-Anza Community College District in San Jose, California. Like many others, I felt that not going would be “letting the terrorists win.” So I left for the airport three hours early as instructed.
When I arrived at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, I was struck by the emptiness. There seemed to be more airport employees than travelers. A nervous and tired ticket agent processed my reservation and then stopped for a moment and said, “Thank you for flying.” This reaction alone got me in touch with what must have been a frightening and isolating time for those working in the travel industry. I then proceeded through the newly bolstered security and made my way to the gate.
As I entered the gate area and sat down, I began to feel the tension. People were whispering, cutting eyes at each other, and acting strangely. It was one of those moments when you know something is going on, but aren’t sure of what’s happening. Then I saw something that explained the reaction I was seeing: two young, Middle Eastern teens in Arizona State University shirts, not more than 18 or 19 years old, sitting alone in the middle of the gate area. They were on our flight.
I can’t even describe how sad these boys looked. They sat staring down at their backpacks, knowing that the entire gate area was filled with people nervously glancing their way, whispering about their presence. Ticket agents were pointing in their direction and security guards seemed to pass our gate more frequently than others. When one of the boys got up to get coffee from a nearby Starbucks cart, peering eyes seemed to watch his every step as he made his way back to his seat. Everyone in that gate area was swimming in the tension of unspoken innuendo and assumption.
Then she stood up. A little Midwestern-looking woman, who must have been in her 70s, looked around at all of the people in the gate area, grabbed her small bag and purse, walked past three row of seats, and stood right in front of the boys. She said, “Do you mind getting up?” Even though she stood only 4’11”, she had an imposing tone. Both boys stood right up. She said, “No, just you,” pointing at the boy on her left. “Can you move over one seat?” The boy moved over and the woman turned around and plopped down right between them.
She sighed as she arranged her belongings and then looked up at the boys. “Where are you from?” she asked.
“We’re from California. But we go to ASU,” the boy who just gave up his seat responded kind of sheepishly.
“So are you going home to see family?” she continued to politely pry in her grandmotherly tone.
“Yes, our family wants us to come home,” he said, returning his gaze to his backpack. “They want us to drop out of school this semester because of all that’s going on.” There was disappointment and sadness in his voice as he looked up into the caring gaze of the woman.
Some context: In the ASU area, just days after 9/11, a man claiming to be a “proud American taking revenge” drove his pickup truck by a gas station, owned by a Sikh man who wore a turban, and killed the Sikh with a shotgun. In addition, the media was reporting two separate incidents of Middle Eastern students being dragged out to the back of the ASU parking lots and beaten up by groups of angry students. Of course, similar stories were being reported in locations across the country.
Everyone in the gate area was pretending not to be listening to the woman’s conversation with the boys. The truth is, however, we hung on every word. When one boy continued, “The worst part is, I don’t know if we’ll be able to come back,” we all were taken aback.
The woman took a moment. She looked at one boy and then the other, and then reached her arms around both. She grabbed the shoulders of these boys she had just met and said, “Boys, don’t worry. We love you. Come back.”
An odd swirl of emotion filled the gate area. First, there was an almost collective shame for what had been happening prior to this conversation. And at the same time, we felt amazing pride to be a part of this moment. This courageous woman reached out in the face of fear, made a personal connection, and probably made a powerful difference in the lives of two boys—not to mention those of us in the gate area.
We will surely need courage to continue to confront the evil, hatred, and ignorance that led to the attacks of 9/11. We will continue to need courage to mount large-scale campaigns to counteract the efforts of hate groups, terrorist organizations, and political opportunists. And we will need to be a part of mounting fundraising efforts and memorial programs to serve those hurt by these terrorists. Educators can surely play a role in all of these endeavors.
However, we must also realize our role in an equally courageous task: cutting through fear, innuendo, and misunderstanding in an effort to reach out, make a connection, and make a difference in the lives of students. By championing these strategies, we boldly advance a citizenry that is less likely to be manipulated by the malevolence and ignorance of hate. Moreover, we can serve as models for our students, communities, nation, and world.
Mark David Milliron is President and CEO of the League.