It was back near the start of my writing career, back when I was moonlighting at it while teaching math at Genesee Community College. (Not sure, but based on my answers at social events, their motto might have been, “Yes, the one you can see from the Thruway on your way to Buffalo”)
It was near the start of the school year, and my teaching career, which meant I had a remedial algebra class, reteaching what should have been learned in eighth grade, or perhaps earlier. Week three of the semester, there was a good chance I was giving my famous lecture on how subtracting negative numbers is just like the story of Cinderella. (As was the case with most of the lectures in my “famous lecture” series, they were constructed for my own entertainment moreso than any impact as a teaching method. Although I’ve had other math teachers steal my Cinderella lecture for their own use)
It was still warm, as summer gave up its grip on the area slowly, which meant there was more tattoo than clothing visible in the student seats as I began my the lecture for my 9:20 Tuesday class.
I’d only had time to tell a few jokes when the door to the room banged open and a female student came in, late, looking flustered. My late policy was similar to my attendance policy (“You’re in college now. We’ve got your money. Do what you want.”) so I was sure she wasn’t worried about the consequences of being late to my class. Although the Cinderella lecture starts off strong, so she’d missed some good material.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “Somebody just crashed a plane into a building in New York City. It’s crazy.” She then took her seat.
We were about eight hours from Manhattan, so I wasn’t sure how a plane crash there delayed her in any way, but I was thinking Cessna or Lear, not American Airlines transcontinental flight.
I continued my lecture.
After a few minutes, I could see activity picking up in the hallway outside the room. People glared in at us, grim looks of judgment on their faces.
I was just getting to the part about the fairy godmother offering to whack a stepsister for Cinderella, but I’d clearly lost the class, as well as a good portion of my own attention. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s see what’s going on,” and dismissed class.
I’m not sure what classrooms use now. I’m sure most of them have smart boards or some other kind of built-in monitors as part of the standard-issue school technology, but back in 2001, if you wanted to show a video in class, you needed to sign out one of those TV carts. With the TV on top, they were about five and a half feet tall, and they had the VCR and (if you got a newer one) DVD player on the lower shelf.
The school had moved their entire inventory of TV carts out into the indoor courtyard. All of them were on. Each had a cluster of people around them, stricken silent by the images on screen. I stood watching. I must have seen a plane hit a building about three dozen times in the first 10 minutes. I remember thinking to myself that I wished they’d show anything else except that clip again.
I got my wish. I was wrong. A short time later, the twins gave up the fight and collapsed, one at a time and the buildings falling in on themselves replaced the plane video. Over and over they fell. They’d be back upright again, a few seconds later, only to fall again.
I remember bits and pieces of the next few days, in no particular order. I remember crying every time they showed the rescue workers forming the bucket lines, to carry away debris. I remember going out to the local diner to get away from the TV on the national day of mourning, and the entire restaurant spontaneously singing “God Bless America” at the time the candlelight vigil was scheduled to begin.
Most of all, I remember the TV carts. I never signed out one again (not that there was a huge need for them in remedial math to begin with). Any time I heard the rattle of one rolling down the hall or saw one set up in the courtyard, I remember feeling a punch in the guy and wondering, “What’s happened THIS time?”
The TV carts brought news, and even though after that day, the news was usually a Weather Channel map showing the approach of an oncoming snowstorm, in my mind the news could only be one thing: Columns of smoke and building that would never stop falling.