I have Morning Joe on in Tuvia’s dark living room and we are remembering our 9/11 mornings. Where were you?
I had just finished my first class of the day and as my new 8th graders left the class probably Ray, who sat in the row by the windows, given that I had them in alphabetical order, was off and on to the rest of his day in his new school.
As the last kid disappeared into the hall racing for period 2 I made my way down the side stairway near my room and into the main office to empty my mailbox and take a morning stroll through the office. For some reason a large school TV had been set up and turned on in at conference area and a few teachers were stopping by, watching a scene at the Twin Towers. I strolled over as the second plane hit, chuckling at the absurdity of the scene until it wasn’t absurd as the towers began to crumble.
I didn’t think about Ray then. I didn’t know that as his dad dropped him off by the entrance to my classroom, that he was on his way to work in a tower high above the plaza and we had just watched his tower crumble.
I’m thinking about Ray this morning and every 9/11 since that first one. I think about his mom and his sister who also made her way into my 8th grade English class years later. And their mom… All sweet people who wake up on this day and remember…
Ray never talked about his loss. He was out of class for a few days, but not many. His classmates were gentle but he seemed to continue without any show of emotion and I followed his lead, never asking him directly but checking in with Rick, his guidance counselor and some of his other teachers. He was a quiet kid who did his work, maintained high grades and had a nice set of friends. I let him be but I think about him.
Every year after to commemorate the experience I read Billy Collins poem, The Names with my students.
A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,
Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.
Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.
In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name —
Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal
Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.
Names written in the air
And stitched into the cloth of the day.
A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.
Monogram on a torn shirt,
I see you spelled out on storefront windows
And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.
I say the syllables as I turn a corner —
Kelly and Lee,
Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor.
When I peer into the woods,
I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden
As in a puzzle concocted for children.
Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,
Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,
Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.
Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea.
In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows.
A boy on a lake lifts his oars.
A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,
And the names are outlined on the rose clouds —
Vanacore and Wallace,
(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)
Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.
Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.
As I read the poem aloud I whispered Ray’s last name near its end.
What is he doing today?