September 11 – September 18

Most everyone who lived in New York City on September 11, 2001, has something to say about it. The part of my story, my day, that I want to share here is as much about September 18th as 9/11.

September 11, 2001, was a lovely Tuesday morning, brilliant blue skies and the kind of late summer/early fall day that put a spring in your step. We lived in Park Slope – Sixth Avenue across from the Carnegie Library branch – and I left for Baruch College early that morning to teach an introductory history class. I liked teaching early in the morning at Baruch. Those kinds of classes – this one started at 7:50 am – tended to attract motivated students and the hours meshed well with my administrative duties. It also meant getting up and to the N or R train early to insure ample time for those last minute class preparations.

My class was held in the 11th floor of Baruch’s Academic Complex, a really big building on Lexington Avenue between 24th and 25th Street. The views are superb and anyone in my class looking south had a clear view of all of southern Manhattan. The focus of that day’s lesson was Federalist Number 10, one of my favorites, and citizenship.  I introduced a book on voting rights by Alexander Kessyar and we had a good discussion about minority rights and opportunities in a federalist system.

The first plane hit the World Trade Center at 8:46 but no one in my class noticed. In the classroom the energy was good.  We had a lively back and forth about why people did or did not vote, and whether voting made the U.S. democratic. As class wrapped up at 9:00, a student turned to me and said that her mother had called: a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I immediately thought of the accident with the Empire State Building as we walked out of the classroom towards a landing with a view. When I saw the tower, I knew that it was no small accident.

The views are clearer higher up in the building, so I headed to the 14th floor, inviting students with me. More than two dozen joined me. By the time we exited the elevator and walked over to the window, the second airplane had struck. The rest of the day I will save for another time.

My next class session was held a week later. Classes were cancelled during the early part of the week as we struggled as an institution and as New Yorkers. Shock, I think, can help in a crisis.  We worked, we talked, we worried and we got on with our lives in those next few days.

With class slated to return on Tuesday, I wanted to do something special, something different. I did not want the heavy hand of history to overwhelm our attempts at doing history, of thinking and arguing and making sense of things. I wanted my class, my students, to have and hold onto something positive, something full of hope.

The class itself was diverse: 46 students with backgrounds from all over the world.  We literally looked like a recruitment poster for the UN.  I had a few older students, too; young men and women in their 20s with a broader perspective and a heightened awareness of the value of an education.

The morning of September 18th, we talked about why a classroom is important, why education is important, and why a democracy that protects the values of truth is important. We talked about how our classroom, our small space on the 11th floor, was sacred for 75 minutes two days a week. In that space we could look at the world, study events and challenge each other with safety and support. Our classroom gave us opportunity, privilege and also power – and with power, we observed, was also danger. What we were doing in the classroom in its very nature was a threat to some.

In class on September 18 we talked about how democratic ideas are scary to some – and how threats often lead to violence. We talked about how the attack was as an attack on us. We recognized and reasserted our good fortune to be in New York City spending time and energy in a collective educational endeavor. We asserted our collective belief in each other and the importance of what we were doing. We talked about the power of history to rewrite lives, but also the ways that a classroom can give meaning and shape history. My lecture that day was not eloquent and it was not carefully crafted, but it was from the heart.

David Potash

September 18th was a very good day.  Class was full of promise, sad and scared though we were.  September 18th affirmed us as New Yorkers, as learners, and as people bound together by common values and interests.  September 18th made me feel very, very good about making my life in education.