At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tragedy, Determination, and the Resolve of a School

Today is the twelve-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. In a coordinated effort, Islamic radicals commandeered airlines on American soil, sending two into the World Trade Center towers in New York City and a third into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. A fourth plane was brought down near Shanksville, Pennsylvania by brave citizens who took on the terrorists on board, preventing it from reaching its target (which was believed to be either the White House or the U.S. Capitol).

Even today, the videos (one of which I posted above) are tough to watch. We can hardly forget the images of people desperately leaping from the WTC. We recall how life came to a standstill for awhile after Wall Street activity, no airline traffic, no football, etc. It has become the defining, seminal moment of a generation, much like President Kennedy's assassination was for my parents' time. Virtually everyone I know who consciously lived through this day remembers where they were at the time of this horrific tragedy that has profoundly shaped the way we live life now.

I remember where I was on that Tuesday during an Indian summer in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was in my second year teaching at the Covenant School, a K-12 Christian institution whose motto is "Academic Excellence Under the Sovereignty of God", and which emphasizes the principles of truth, beauty, and goodness. It remains the most academically challenging and demanding community of which I have been a part, pushing students toward greater wisdom, virtue, and eloquence. It remains the most denominationally diverse school where I have worked, with many fond memories of laboring side by side with Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Catholics in that blessed ecumenical haven. The faculty was stunning and dazzling in their collective intelligence, the students rigorous in their efforts, and the grounds (especially after moving later that year to our new campus) were beautiful and stately.

But on that day--September 11, 2001--the Covenant School showed it was a family, as well.

I was seated in the gymnasium at 9:38 a.m. ET, waiting for chapel to begin, when Bob Fuhrman walked up next to me. Bob normally had an upbeat visage, so his morose look on his face immediately gave me cause for concern. As if sensing my anxiety, he walked up to me and said in a low voice, "Two separate airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center." I honestly could not process what he told me. I stared blankly around the assembly as the students filed in, unaware of what was going on several hundred miles to the northeast of us. I remember seeing our headmaster at the time, Dr. Ron Sykes, approach my friend Tom Foley (Covenant's chaplain) and whisper something in his ear. You could see Tom recoil internally at what Dr. Sykes told him. Tom ended up giving his chapel talk as usual--which I thought must have been like carrying an unbelievable weight under the circumstances--before giving way to Dr. Sykes, who came up and addressed the school community on what had just happened. We could not come to grips with the fact that while Tom had been speaking, the South Tower of the WTC had collapsed after burning for 56 minutes. We had no idea how much our lives would change because of this terrible day. One of my students, Brad Arms, would end up in Fallujah, Iraq, as part of the War on Terror that followed and was felled by a sniper's bullet in November 2004.

Numb, we woodenly staggered around the school, many faculty and students ending up in the library, watching the devastating events play out like some international horror film on the television. We gasped as we saw the North Tower fall at 10:28 ET, soon after many of us gathered in the library. I remember my colleague and our American history teacher, Matthew Davisson, lower the flag to half mast, and he was weeping as he did so. Pockets of students huddled together in the hallways. We gave no thought to going to class for a couple of hours. We had been thrown into the gears of a wicked and violent world that was consuming us with terrifying energy, and we needed help. We needed prayer. We needed each other. I staggered amongst the students, praying with some, sitting silently with others, dreading the death toll that would climb to three thousand and the scars that would straddle the hearts of so many more.

In the midst of that awful, awful day, though, I found there was much of which to be proud even as our nation was hit viciously below the belt. Teachers came alongside students, alongside fellow teachers. We had different ways of dealing with the shock and grief, but the remarkable thing was we gave space for how that would play out. In the sadness, we gripped tightly onto one another. Whatever differences in whatever areas we had, we cast them aside and instinctively knew this was a time to weep, a time to mourn, so that through the veil of tears we might come to a time to heal.

I've been proud of many of my employers at various times. It's hard to imagine being more proud of a school than I was of the Covenant School that day. The spirit of friendship and togetherness came home powerfully during those dark hours, and I remember with pride my fellow colleagues who played their parts well. Joining with Dr. Sykes, Tom Foley, Roger Munsick, John Collmus, Matthew Davisson, Bob Fuhrman, Debra Douglas, Liz DeGaynor, and others was a time of honor and privilege even when shards of evil cut deeply into our hearts. To come together in a phalanx of hope with such friends taught me that--as Sam-Wise Gamgee said to Frodo Baggins, "There's some good left in this world, and it's worth fighting for!"

You can take me out of the Covenant School. You can never take the Covenant School out of me. There's a reason for that, and it began on 9/11.

Remember the grief. Recall the sacrifice. Redeem the future.

Never forget.

And we do so together.

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