Eleven years ago today.
I was sitting in my classroom, first year of teaching. I was in the midst of a gargantuan effort to bring my Jr. High under control. They happened to be a rather undisciplined lot. I was a brand new struggling teacher just learning how to do what I was paid to do.
It was my prep hour. I was grading 8th grade history tests.
A student burst in my door.
“MR. FISHER!!! TURN ON YOUR RADIO!! SOMETHING IS HAPPENING IN THE CITY!!!”
I stated at him. “Huh?”
I reached over and turned on the radio.
The announcer on the AM station was cursing. He was broadcasting from downtown NYC and was totally unsure what was going on. Through the fragments I heard that one of the Towers had been hit by “something.” No one really seemed to know what was going on.
I sat, stunned, I stared at the radio. It went dead. There was silence in the room.
It was broken by the timid voice of the student. “Mr. Fisher, Are we going to be in a war?”
I was teaching at New Life Christian School in Dunellen, New Jersey, a suburb of NYC. I had students whose parents and extended family worked at the WTC. For a month after the event my best friend and I could still see the smoke and steam rising from Ground Zero from the roof of our building. When we went to Washington Rock (a local tourist site, where Washington had viewed British Troops during the Revolution, you could see the skyline of the city from there) the view had dramatically altered. The most prominent site, the long obelisks, those monuments to American economic power, the World Trade Center, was simply gone.
I was shaking. I looked at the student, “No‚” I said, not quite sure myself. “They don’t even know what’s going on.”
We walked down the hall. I remember the sound of our footsteps on the tile of the 1930’s era building. I had never been able to hear that sound during school but that day of days it was as if the entire school was empty.
Jesse (my best friend who taught English at the school) and I set up the television in the common room. We sat with the students that day and watched history unfold before us. A 35 minute train ride away people were screaming, just trying to stay alive.
My students sat quietly and cried. One student, whose father worked there started screaming. He ran downstairs. Moments later the administrator appeared and told us to put the TV away. He was furious with J and I for allowing the students to see this. I argued that we needed to experience this together so that we might be a comfort to each other. He was the boss so he prevailed. Its not as though anyone had any experience with trauma like this. I had gone through several very grievous events with my family but nothing prepared me for such collective sorrow.
Since then, tragedy has been a distinct part of who I am and what I have done both professionally and privately. There is a line from the film, Donnie Darko‚ which seems to describe myself and family.
Some people are just born with tragedy in their blood.
So I was born, to be in the midst of tragedy.
In my journal the only record of this was written a week after the event. I wrote of how profoundly I was affected and concluded that I would join the military to avenge this act.
I tried to join the military twice as a 19D Cav Scout. The first time I was turned away because of a physical ailment. The second time I had actually joined and then got out to help with my family during yet another hard time. I thought that this war was going to pass me by, I would have be content to teach it, having not lived the part.
Little did I know that I would not be sent as an avenger, but as a healer of the warrior.
Not to fight the battle but to be with those that paid the price of tragedy.
I have accepted the role that God has given me for this life; the role of the healer. I went to the war on terrorism and returned markedly different. My spirituality has changed, my outlook on life has changed, my emotions have changed, my love has changed, my very heart has changed.
We have all changed because of this fight. We have given up freedom, liberties, conveniences and necessities all for safety. We have sent our sons and daughters into foreign lands to fight a fight that we are growing tired of. I ask you to remember that this war was engaged with the full consent of the Congress and the it was the desire of the people to strike out at a faceless foe whether they were perceived or not. Do not lose courage now. Do not lose strength now. The fight goes on, whether we like it or not.
Even now, I sit in wonder of how that day changed my life.
We are all of us changed.
But we are strong.
The only true solution to this is the love of Christ. We fight, for we must. Let us not forget the injunction of our Lord to “Pray for our enemies.”
Pray for peace.
Pray for strength.
I wrote the above passage several years ago. I was deployed at the time. Little did I know that years from the writing I would be a prison chaplain in the Army system, picking up the pieces of men whose bodies and minds are paying the price for our wars. There is always a price. I think we have only begun to see what these years of war have cost us as a nation. Tragically, we often think of the cost in terms of dollars but it is much deeper than that. Once a person is that familiar with killing, destruction, anger, and tragedy, I fear it just can’t be “turned off.” We will continue to pay the price.
But there is hope. Our country seems a little more resistant of putting their Sons and Daughters into harms way. We are trying to work for a better future. Beyond the darkness is life and hope.
My prayer for this land is that we will seek peace, pursue it, live it – with each other first and throughout the world.