September 11, 2016
“I’m sorry, so, so sorry!”
She apologized like this several times over the two-hour class that had begun at 7:20 a.m. that Tuesday in 2001. Her words flew automatically, frantically from her mouth—apologizing. But she might as well have wrung her hands or put her face in her hands, saying she didn’t understand—like the rest of us.
We were stunned. I made them write about it. Some could just lay their heads atop their papers on those small college desk/table units. I was teaching a comp class in the then Home Ec building on campus. It has since changed to Writer’s Row.
The kid from Texas was the first to read. I still imagine him with a cowboy hat on his head, but that could not be true, just too stereotypical. His writing was full of anger and blame. He didn’t say he hated Muslims, but he knew someone had to pay. Something had to be done about who got into the country and how. Fear.
Someone else read. And then she said it again. The young twenty-ish Syrian woman with the hijab, pretty face, stand-out from the first day of class a couple weeks before because of her dark coverings, often full body black and flowing.
She was in tears. She faced the class with pleading in her eyes, distorting her cringed face, tight and angled with panic. Pain. Fear. No, they won’t understand. Saudi Arabians the news plastered over the burning tower images.
Before I left for school that morning, so early that I sleep-walked into the spare room where from 5 to 8 my husband watched the market, I first saw but did not register. Seeing me enter his lair, he pointed to the burning towers on the t.v. and said, “Look at this.” I looked. I then turned to the shower while thinking that it was too early for disaster movies and wasn’t he supposed to be working, anyhow?
When I came back into the room, showered and dressed, he said, “No, look at this. The second tower just blew.” And I looked. My mouth fell open involuntarily though my brain barely comprehended. How could it have happened? Why? How? I had to go teach.
By the third time she said it, I spoke firmly but with a slight chuckle, “Unless you had something to do with it, you don’t have to apologize. Though I understand why you want to.” She quieted.
It wasn’t long afterward, maybe three days after the united great good will of the U.S. turned to the business of blame and retribution. The airstrikes were already in the making. And there at the college, a political science teacher was disciplined, maybe even resigned, after pointing in the direction of a Middle Eastern looking group of students in the 200-seat forum during his lecture about something other than the events of the previous days and boomed, “You, you did it.”
Huntington Beach, VA
Pamela Gerber is a college English instructor, writer, mom, partner, poet, friend and blogger at inthegazeoftheother.com.