When the Saybrook fire alarm blared at 8:15 a.m. last Thursday, I did not remember, at first, that it was September 11th. The reason was not apathy — just grogginess.
Then, as we all stood outside in the courtyard, the firefighters came. Even in sleepy bewilderment, I marveled at them: their bulging jackets, hefty with tools; their hard hats with flashlights, testifying that their jobs take them where they cannot see; the fire extinguisher that one man actually wore on his back; the raw fact that firefighters risk their lives to save strangers.
They are heroes, I thought. I recalled how we all came to see firefighters this way on 9/11.
At that moment, I remembered what day it was.
The coincidence was eerie. It turned that groggy, shivery morning into an uncannily perfect chance to compare how we acted on that day with how we act now, and to see what we really learned from 9/11. I don’t mean how much we learned about bureaucracy, or foreign policy. I mean how much we learned morally. On 9/11, did we learn something lasting about how to treat each other better? Or, as that black day fades into memory, have we decided that we are safe to return to small-mindedness and complacency?
Obviously, a college fire alarm is inconsequential compared with international terrorism. But the Saybrook fire’s relative puniness — a kitchen smoke fire triggered the alarm, Saybrook Master Mary Miller heard — is why it reveals how much 9/11 changed us. It is a better litmus test, actually, than another catastrophe. If another 9/11 happened (God forbid), and we mustered the same good qualities that we mustered then, that would not be surprising. The real test is whether we have embedded these traits into our ordinary ways of treating people, such that we act on them instinctively and naturally, even in a smaller crisis, or even when there is no crisis at all.
What were those good qualities? Think back to 9/11, and the weeks after. Remember how, under that hushed pall that expanded over us like a macabre sky, we acted with new gentleness. No one honked. At baseball games, instead of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” we sang “God Bless America,” and meant it. In my hometown of Boston, where hating the New York Yankees is a religion, no one chanted, “Yankees Suck.” Fiery vulgarities against a sports club made no sense in a world of infernos on earth.
We looked at firefighters with new reverence. The picture of three firefighters raising the flag at Ground Zero glowed on countless front pages. FDNY hats were no longer corny souvenirs, but emblems of gratitude. Bruce Springsteen’s 2002 album, The Rising — with lyrics like, “Up the stairs, into the fire / May your strength give us strength” — topped the charts. More movies about firefighters appeared, like 2004’s Ladder 49, of which the critic Ty Burr wrote in The Boston Globe, “Sept. 11 isn’t mentioned once, and it doesn’t have to be; that event has forever weighed down our awareness of what these men do.”
Most of all, we reached out to people who, otherwise, we might not even talk to. “Thousands rallied in response to the tragedy,” New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote, quoting a volunteer mental health counselor who said, “I’ll stay as long as they need me.” In another Times opinion piece, a former firefighter, who came out of retirement on 9/11, described firefighters boarding a city bus and re-directing it toward the ruins: “Not one of the passengers complains.” My sister’s then-boyfriend, born Sept. 14th, drove from Ithaca College with friends to spend his birthday volunteering at Ground Zero.
Outside New York, people quietly connected. My high school cancelled classes. At an assembly in the gym, the principal spoke. After, we gathered in the school theater, where we watched the news on a giant screen and waited for our parents to pick us up.
I don’t remember what our principal said, or much of what we students said to each other. Sometimes we were silent. But I do remember the feeling that those words and silences conveyed: togetherness.
Usually, when we talked en route to the gym, we complained about homework. This time, we asked each other if our families were safe. As parents arrived, people’s faces made clear how grateful they were simply to be together.
The feeling was as if, in all our prior days at school, we had been actors in a play. Now, at last, with the day’s choreographed schedule wiped away, we could take off the masks, and speak with each other, friend to friend. We no longer had the luxury of any alternative.
All these virtues — gentleness, reverence, gratitude, supportiveness — arise from one principle: that fundamentally, we humans are all the same. When we all face one danger and need the same rescue, we remember this truth. But it is true even on serene days, when no newspaper-worthy dangers strike our lives. Something else exists that we all need: human connection.
As a rescue saves our lives, so human connection makes our lives worth living. These are things we can give — and must give — each other.
We could have sustained that ethos. But Sept. 11, 2008 revealed that we have not. Firefighters roamed the courtyard. Five minutes passed, then ten minutes. And still, several students were just then ambling down from their rooms.
How can anyone move leisurely with a fire alarm sounding?
Clearly, common sense is to hurry. It is not so hard, and it may save your life; only afterward will you know for sure. If some students bet it was just a fire drill, they bet wrong. A kitchen smoke fire, though this one was harmless, is a genuine danger.
The only reason to lollygag is that we assume that it is probably not a real fire, that nothing dangerous could actually happen in our lives, and that even if danger did arise, we would be entitled to have someone come help. Actually, no one would be forced to help us. So if we can help ourselves, we should buck up and do it. If we cannot, then yes, someone should help us — but we should not take that help for granted. We would owe that person tremendous thanks.
As firefighters entered Saybrook’s Entry E, I thought: What if the fire spreads? Firefighters would charge up the smoke-filled stairs to save remaining Saybrugians. They would pound on doors, shouting in urgency — only to find Yalies who just could not be bothered to finish their shower or their e-mail some other time.
Most of us cannot fathom risking our lives for a stranger. Now imagine risking your life for a stranger who does not thank you.
We recoil at the suggestion that we would be so ungrateful. But that is the natural extension of how seldom we thank dining hall workers, custodians, or any of the legions of people whose job is to make us comfortable. That morning, firefighters were just more legions. Ty Burr’s hopes proved too optimistic.
As the gratitude was gone, so was the gentleness and steadfastness. Sweatpants-clad suitemates stood in circles, slouching, grumbling. Granted, 8 a.m. is hardly camaraderie’s zenith. Still, the sense abided that, in sad contrast to our intimacy on 9/11, now the masks are back on.
I remembered one Boston DJ who foresaw as much: “You’ll know 9/11 is behind us when it’s OK to yell, ‘Yankees Suck’ again.”
America, we’ve got it all backward. Of the traits that defined our nation after 9/11, we kept the ones we should have left behind — warmongering, racial profiling, political jingoism — and left behind the ones we should have kept.
We should not need a catastrophe to awaken our sense of human connection. We can muster that sense whenever we wish.
As we learned on 9/11, that sense was always in us, dormant. We can summon it, we must summon it, in every small moment: asking a dining hall worker how her day is, and wanting to know; asking a friend how his family is, and what is truly on his mind; making friends with the stranger in the next seat over in Commons, or even Au Bon Pain, casting off the masks and roles of “strangers,” and connecting as people.
Even when the result is only one conversation, for twenty minutes or even just two, that time will be better spent than otherwise. And when one conversation leads to another, and ultimately, to a friendship, all the more reason to be glad we took off the masks.
If we live this way, we will repair this world. That task has been strangely difficult for us over the 5,000 years of human history.
But it is in our reach.
We just need to put our own comfort slightly second, and give one moment and a little energy to someone else, knowing they will do the same for us.