Finding unity in tragedy

When I first visited Amherst two years ago, I kept hearing the word “community.” Amherst is marketed as a small college where every student has a sense of community; people learn to bond and share experiences together. The native New Yorker in me thought it complete rubbish. During my freshman year, a time of relative peace in this nation, it seemed I was right. Students mainly stayed within their own cliques and, I noticed, never really discussed controversial issues. They kept to what was the norm and never expressed their opinions. All my perceptions changed on the day that changed America, Sept. 11, 2001.

I woke up that morning at the usual time, 8:00 a.m., and immediately turned on NBC’s “Today” show, which I am a big fan of, though I hate to admit it. And then it happened. The tone of the anchors suddenly changed from perky to somber. A jet had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.

Immediately, I remembered my visits to that building. At four, it represented the pinnacle of height, and at 18, the pinnacle of capitalism. Then, minutes later, a jet crashed into the other World Trade Center tower, this time caught live on national television. My heart pounded, and I could not believe the astonishing sequence of events that had befallen my hometown. It was a roller-coaster morning that only got worse when the first tower collapsed. After living in New York City all my life, to think of the skyline without the Twin Towers was jarring. When I finally realized the tremendous loss of life that would come with the collapse of the towers, I was completely unsettled, to say the least. I tried calling home, but my call wouldn’t go through. Soon after, the Pentagon was attacked, but unfortunately I had to run to class, even though classes should have been canceled due to the historical and traumatic nature of events.

On my way to class, I stopped by Valentine to get a quick bagel. The servery’s radio was blasting the news as the workers all looked very thoughtful. I proceeded to the Campus Center to check my mail, and I saw something I had never seen before in my time on this campus: students stood side by side as they stared in disbelief in front of the television in the building manager’s corner. No one was moving, except a few girls who took a moment to embrace and console one another. When I finally got to class, the professor hooked up the projection equipment to air CNN, and we all watched in horror for 15 minutes before class began. There in Merrill 2, students sat on their hands trying to make sense of what was happening. But I couldn’t really concentrate on class, not knowing the condition of my family.

I finally returned home from class and attempted many times to call my family. Student Telephone Services didn’t help either, because I had to dial repeatedly to escape the message that “a tornado had downed service in that area.” It was a weight off my shoulders when I found out my family was OK. My brother had been navigating the city streets in an attempt to find his way home. Luckily, several hours later, he did. I continued to watch the footage of the disaster on my television, and the unsettling feeling I had earlier in the day was weakened only by a minuscule amount. I received President Gerety’s email and was thoroughly impressed by the school’s effort to calm and soothe Amherst’s shocked and frightened student body. I didn’t go to the assembly because we all deal with tragedy our own way; mine was to go on with my normal routine.

So I arrived at Valentine, once again impressed by how the students came together as all of them sat glued to the televisions around Valentine. I went back to my room, where I attempted to read for one of my classes and found I kept reading the same paragraph over and over again. I eventually gave up and just focused on the news.

It was 10 p.m. and my roommate and a friend thought it would be a good idea to go to the vigil. I was skeptical at first, but I could not have been gladder that I went. The word of the day on all of the news channels was “surreal.” Everything was being described as surreal. So-called “ground zero” where the World Trade Center collapsed was surreal, the devastation to the Pentagon was surreal, and the rash of four hijackings on the same day was, again, surreal. Well, surreal was the perfect word to describe the vigil as well. Being non-religious myself, I didn’t really know what to expect, but in the first few minutes I knew this was not about religion. Under a clear dark night sky, students of all ages and ethnicities stood in a circle and spoke about their feelings about the day’s events. Those who knew people affected by the tragedy and those who did not stood together, in defiance of evil and terror in the world. Anyone who ever said American patriotism was dead was not standing in the Freshman Quad that night, as all the students who stood there knew what was on the line in this war: our nation’s freedom. Boy and girl held each other; girls wiped tears from each other’s eyes. Then we all sang Amazing Grace. I didn’t know the words, so I just lip-synced; but, I felt for the first time at this college that I belonged.

At 11 p.m., I went home, and it was easier for me to sleep that night because of the vigil. The vigil showed me that with all this evil in the world, there was still plenty of good to combat it. It showed me that a national identity is a good thing. It unites us, it gives us ideals to strive for. It showed me that there is in fact a community here at Amherst, and we’re all the better for it.