September 11

Today is an important day in our country. It is a day of remembrance and recognition for the lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001 when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked by terrorists. Today we pause to consider the events that occurred on that day.

Usually on Sept. 11, I am silent. I tend not to talk about it and I avoid the Facebook memes and images of the towers with the statement “We will never forget.” Everyone grieves in their own way, and everyone has his or her own experience of that day, and perhaps that is why I remain silent. For me, the effect was profound, but for others, the day means something different.

Just like thousands across the world, I will never forget where I was on 9/11/01. Working on my master’s degree in Laramie, Wyoming, I lived in a basement room in a house with three other college students. As a night owl, I had been up late the night before preparing for class. I was trying to sleep in, but commotion upstairs woke me. I heard the radio blasting and I felt confusion and chaos in the house. The telltale squeak of the stairs alerted me to my roommate’s presence. Having the only TV in the house, Maria asked me to turn it on. “Something’s happened,” she said as I sat up in bed. “Can we turn on the TV?” I could tell from her voice that it was serious.

I scrambled for the remote and clicked it on. The image of the World Trade Center towers came on the screen. One tower was smoking and the ticker tape across the screen announced that an airplane had crashed into the tower. Our conversation joined those of the reports: Was this an accident? Was this on purpose? What’s happening?

Then, in our horror, a second plane crashed into the other tower, spewing flames and debris through the sky. Maria & I both gasped and instantly, I was in tears. Maria sat on the bed as I called my mom to see if she was watching. She was.

New York was her home state. She had spent her childhood in Greece, NY, a small town near Rochester. We still had family there. As far as we knew, thankfully, our family was safe. I did not know of anyone who died in the buildings, but just like everyone else, I recognized that our world had just changed.

The hardest part of that day for me was having to face my students. As a second-year graduate teaching assistant for the English department, I taught one course each semester. That day, I was scheduled to teach at noon. I had no idea what to say or what to do in class. I simply decided that we would talk and I would do what I could to help my students.

In the classroom, my students talked of the events in hushed tones as I entered the classroom. I sat on one of the desks and I listened to my students as they each talked about how they felt.

One student walked in late, apologized, and then took her seat in the back of the classroom. Quickly, I realized she didn’t know what had happened. “What’s happened?” she asked, and all of the students looked at me. They didn’t know how to tell her that two terrorists had just killed thousands of people and the New York skyline was forever changed. It was up to me—I was the adult in the room. I was in charge. No matter how much I didn’t want to, I had to tell her what had happened.

She screamed and cried. “Oh my god!” She grabbed her cell phone and dialed as she explained, “My family is there. My uncle works there! Oh my god!” Of course, the circuits were busy and she couldn’t get through to anyone. “I have to go.” I nodded and gave her a hug as she left.

I wondered where she was going and what she thought she could do, but I didn’t ask; I let her go assuring her that she could come to me if she needed.

A few days later she came to my office. She withdrew from school, and she still could not reach her family. “I don’t know if they’re alive or dead,” she said to me in my office. “I have to go home. I don’t know what to do. I have a flight into Jersey tomorrow. I can’t even get home.”

That was the last time I saw her.

Every Sept. 11 I wonder where she is, who is alive and who is dead in her family. That moment changed her life forever in a way that mine did not. My life carried on. I taught. I studied. I graded. I spoke with my family. That day belongs to her and people like her–it belongs to those who lost loved ones. Yes, I grieve in a way, but most of all, I am here for my students…to help them process these life-changing events…to help them find their place in this ever-changing world. And sometimes, all it takes is listening.

One more reason I read fiction…

Rebecca Brown’s 1994 book The Gifts of the Body follows a homecare worker as she cares for HIV and AIDS patients.  This is an open letter to the author.

Dear Ms. Brown,

I spent some time with your book this winter.  The first time I picked up my paperback copy I read it quickly – the clear, simple prose held me close, kept me moving.  I read more slowly the next time around.  I poured over each chapter on cold Sunday evenings hoping that my students were shut in their dorm rooms doing the same.  As I read I remembered the AIDS epidemic of my teens – the scary, calculated sex education that felt like a legal brief on the death penalty.  As I prepared for my classes I tried to assemble the facts for my students.  I found timelines and journal articles.  I watched clips of Magic Johnson and Ryan White.  I wanted to give them background and context so they’d understand the story.

When the class met for the first time, my students surprised me.  I expected fear and misconceptions about AIDS and the gay community.  I’d been warned about their ignorance – the Millennial picture of HIV is a healthy NBA star.  But their compassion and understanding shocked me.  The book’s caregiver captivated my students.  They were unsurprised by her generosity; they expected her tenderness and perseverance.  My students instinctively understood that the caregiver’s ability to build relationships with the dying made room for the gifts of the body.  Our discussions progressed easily with the caregiver as our guide.  The gifts of the dying were clear to them; they embraced sweat and wholeness and tears.  They wrote about perspective and grace.  They got it.

I, however, was a little slower on the up-take.

Three weeks after I’d shelved your book in my office, I ended up in Southern California for my uncle’s funeral.  His bed was still in the living room when I got there.  Someone had moved the wheel chair out and packed up the sheets and pillows, but the little corded box that moved the hospital bed up and down was still in the middle of the room.  The bed hummed in the background of every conversation.  I think I tripped over the cord seven times before I wondered aloud about the empty bed overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  My dad yanked the cord from the wall plug and the room went quiet.

By Sunday afternoon the bed was gone and the room was full of tables and flowers and people.   We celebrated my uncle’s life with rich food, good wine, and laughter.  That evening I sat at a corner table with my oldest brother.  As we visited with our tablemates, we realized we were surrounded by Bob’s caregivers.  One man told us how he’d balanced our aunt’s dinner plates on broom sticks to entertain our bedridden uncle.  A woman told us about how even at the end when ALS had taken nearly all of him, Bob loved to see his little dog, Whimsy, on the edge of the couch.  Another woman brought three perfect calla lilies wrapped in brown paper.  They were Bob’s favorite.

Books have always been some of my best companions.  They line my walls and keep me company.  But at times in the classroom, I struggle to communicate the true importance of reading fiction.  My students quickly found the point of strongest connection in your stories.  It was the scholar who needed to be hit upside the head.  Without The Gifts of the Body, I would have left that living room knowing less about my family.  I would not have paid enough mind to the hours and hours those three strangers spent sitting with a man I loved.  I would not have known how death really looks.  I needed fiction to remind me to pay attention.


– S

What?! I have to Cite it?

This weekend I traded in my writing instructor hat for a student hat. My assignment was to write a short essay on Richard Wright’s novel Native Son. “No problem,” I thought. I had read the book, taken notes, participated in the discussion, and had an idea of what I would write.

Friday night I started on it and banged out the basics in under an hour. All I had left to do was add some quotes, connect my ideas, create a Works Cited page, and then, BAM!…I’d be done.

Any time I mention to my non-writing-loving friends that I have to write a paper for a class, they roll their eyes and lament, “I hate writing papers.” I smile to myself knowing that I don’t, and I’m usually pretty good at it. Granted, I’ve had a lot of practice. I’ve also been teaching essay writing for more years than I care to admit. So, writing this essay would be a snap.

Or so I thought…

One difficult part of this assignment was the length. It had to be between 550-750 words. No more. No less. For me, this is daunting because it’s fairly short, especially when doing a literary analysis on a 396-page novel. But still, since I had written a brief summary of my points on Friday, I figured I was golden.

Sunday night, after a day of grading and then a movie break with my husband, I sat down to finish my paper.


I submitted my essay.

It wasn’t so much the content that gave me the problem…it was the citations. Goodness! The last essay I wrote that required citations was in 2009 and it was for an education class. We used the American Psychology Association (APA) style manual, and I’m used to working in the Modern Language Association (MLA) style. We were only allowed to use peer-reviewed sources. This meant only reputable library databases would be accepted.

For that essay, I spent at least three weeks on it. I wasn’t taking any chances. Even working on it on and off for three weeks, I submitted it at the last minute, spending most of the time reviewing the references and APA style. It didn’t seem so bad. Most of my citations were from a library database, so once I figured it out for one document, it was the same for the rest. (Yes, I earned an A, by the way.)

So what was the problem with this short, 3-page essay, requiring MLA formatting?


Here’s my dilemma: I use a Kindle. I love to read, but with my Kindle, I devour books, reading two or three at the same time, depending on my mood, and getting through two per week. I never did this with printed books, but I love my Kindle. Reading in bed is so much more comfortable, and with my handy-dandy case with a built-in book light, I can read without disturbing my snoring husband.

The Kindle is particularly handy for books I read for my graduate class: words are easy to look up, I can make notes & highlight passages without a pencil, and I can make the letters larger for my tired eyes. I don’t know how I lived without this before!

Reading on my Kindle is excellent, but then mid-essay I was struck with a particular problem. How do I cite my Kindle book? There aren’t page numbers–only an obscure location and a percentage number.

I had the print book as well (yes, having both versions is a bit silly…), but finding one spot in a 396-page novel with only three chapters is particularly tricky.

I searched my go-to documentation resource, Diana Hacker’s Resource and Documentation site, but the only listing close to a Kindle is an e-book. Perhaps Kindle is an e-book, but that just didn’t make sense to me.

So, I did what any modern-day college student would do: I Googled it!

I typed in “cite Kindle book,” and I found this site by Booksprung (a blog about ebooks) containing a tool to convert Kindle locations to book pages. Thank goodness for people who not only know how to do this, but who also want to do it!

Overall, then, I managed to turn in my essay with citations and learn something new! Go figure!