I remember the day after 9/11, the professor stood at the front of the class looking rather pensive. The pressure was on. She knew there were to be a sea of faces and expectant stares. A collective “why” filled the room. She knew. We all knew. Professor C. must speak to us of the occurrence. Only, she had not any time to process just what happened only the day before.

“We were attacked,” she said while… what? Looking calm? Self-assured? In control? Knowledgeable? After all, she was the professor. She got paid to think.

I admired her. She wasn’t just smart, she was wise; an old soul in a tiny, frail, middle-aged frame. Those lines about her eyes were the price of admission into academia, the bags held every word she had ever read. Her eyes exuded confidence, poise, and delight. She loved teaching, she loved History, and she loved complexity. She guided me/us to understand deeper levels of ourselves.

But, for this day, her eyes looked different; dulled, far away, and … sad – as if she reached for the whale oil but could not find the match. 9/11 happened the day before. There simply was too little time to process it, too little time to grieve, too little time for a good contextual analysis. Poor Professor C., all she could do was look back at us. We wanted answers, we wanted her to spill her guts, to crack open that book of knowledge in that magnificent brain of hers and reply to our great, big, collective “why.”

“We were attacked,” she said once more and then added, “so, tell me dear students: what does it mean?”

I still think about 9/11. All those seconds since, those minutes, days, months, years, more than decade, now: Hell! I’m still processing that Manhattan skyline, looking backward, looking for a simpler time when New York City possessed binary towers, two “ones” right in a row before the awesome gasp of nothing. Just like that. Boom, boom! Gone, gone. And so many… so many.

Too many.

2Fast forward. It’s 2015. I teach History, and the pain of another terrorist attack newly stains humanity: this time in Paris. We have journeyed well this semester, my students and I. We began the year with a simple guiding question: do we matter? Do any of us, as members of the human species, actually matter? And then off we went. We read our primaries. Our conversations pitched on complexity demanding and often obtaining depth. We have witnessed changes in economic reciprocities; understood the origins of agricultural capitalism; experienced the brutality of the Atlantic slave trade; watched Europe’s imperialistic ethos usher forth colonial domination; sought out various forms of nationalism (religious, economic, and social); detailed the rise of industrialism and the changing nature of work; focused on communist ideals; watched the twisting ascent of racism, Spencerism, and Wahhabism; seen the slow collapse of the Ottomans against the quick collapse of the Qing in China; spoke of the speed of German unification, and Japan’s industrial turnaround; tallied the war dead of World War One, where so many, so many…

And now tomorrow, I must face the class. Stand before them. Peer out over them. I know exactly what I’ll see: expectant faces as the word “why” hangs from the ceiling. And so what can I say? other than:

“France was attacked the other day,” and then pause, take a deep breath, look them all in the eye, “So, tell me. Tell me dear students, what does it mean?”