At 1:35 that day, it was Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, the first class of two, half the novel. But it seemed almost purposeless to go to class since everyone was watching television. The coverage wasn't even interrupted by commercials, and all over America--all over the world--millions were transfixed by what still seemed a bizarre, unthinkable nightmare.
By afternoon, that sickly gray pallor sat over every image to come from Manhattan, the island the Dutch bought from the Native people for not much more than a few baubles, the island that was, without a doubt, the cultural hub of the entire world. Everywhere you looked fine dust grayed the streets and survivors, dust like a plague and not unlike that which fell over the region surrounding Mt. St. Helens. But it wasn't volcanic really. The dust that afternoon was something else altogether because a different kind of mountain had fallen, this one made by man. A Babel.
There's nothing particularly upbeat about the first half of The Scarlet Letter. A woman with a child born out of wedlock is punished for her sin by having to wear an A over her chest, a warning to others to beware of sin, a curse on her no less sure than the mark of Cain. It would have been hard to find thematic parallels, to parse Hawthorne in such a way as to make Hester Prynne somehow relevant to the carnage in NYC. I don't think I tried.
What I did try was to excuse the class. I walked in, put my books down, told them--most of them were there--that it felt very strange that day to talk about anything other than what had happened that morning. The horror was too great, too far beyond what anyone could really have dreamed. "Maybe we shouldn't be here at all right now," I said, or something to that effect. I didn't want to be there, I remember.
They didn't move. Instead they looked up at me. I was, in fact, their prof. More than that, at a Christian college, I was the one to whom they looked for guidance, even spiritual guidance.
I'm sure I said some things about the horror, what I knew, what I felt, what I feared. I'm sure I mentioned my own shock at what had happened, the impossibility of it all. And I know that probably took some time--maybe 15 minutes.
But they didn't want to leave--that I remember. Wasn't a big class--maybe twenty students--but they showed no desire to walk out of that classroom, a classroom that had become, in metaphor, a fortress.
So, just as we should have, we talked about Hawthorne and Hester Prynne and those self-righteous Puritans. We parsed Hawthorne's long and sometime gangling sentences. We tried to clarify what seemed too dense or foreign to their ears and hearts. We did what the syllabus said we would that day--we discussed The Scarlet Letter.
And what I remember best about all of that is how good it was. Teaching can be painful. Some days nothing works. But that afternoon class in American Literature I on September 11, 2001--was one of the best I ever had covering the first half of Scarlet Letter. Honestly.
When I think about it now, I suppose the joy of that class period had little to do with whether or not that particular group of students loved Hawthorne more than any other I remember in thirty years of teaching American Lit I. That's not it at all.
Nor was there any measured parallels to what consumed us--right now, for the life of me, I can't come up with some kind of bridge between Puritan New England the collapsed Twin Towers. Certainly there's something about sin--after all, it's Hawthorne; but I don't think I would have touched anything close to that right then.
It was a very good class on a completely unrelated subject, a very famous novel about 17th century America written by a mid-19th century novelist, and it was good because they wanted to learn, wanted to fill their minds and hearts and souls with something other than that gritty dust all over Manhattan Island. They wanted to know about Hester Prynne, that wretched Chillingworth, or the sickly preacher Dimmesdale.
I don't know that I've ever had a better first class on Scarlet Letter than I did on September 11, ten years ago.
Sometimes I wish it weren't true of our sinful selves, but it seems beyond question that politics separate us, as someone wrote recently, but tragedy--which is to say suffering--always unites, always brings us together.