We have heard the first tolling of the bell, which marks the moment when the first plane hit the first tower in New York, nineteen tolls, and we have observed a minute of silence. We have seen the flag, which usually flies so high, carefully unfurled and raised, then placed at half-staff as a sign of mourning. The ringing of the bell is an old, old sign of when services would begin, a sign of when all the people should gather together to hear a message that will help them be better in their lives. The raising of the flag: we raise it vigorously to show that our country is proud and free; we lower the flag to half-staff slowly to show that we do so of our own will, not out of fear, not in retreat—to show by our own choosing that we honor the dead.
It has been nineteen years since September 11th, 2001, and this is the first year—remarkably, for those of us who lived through it—the first year that none of our students were yet born on that day. However, we as a school still turn away from books and labs and essays to pause for these few moments and remember the almost three thousand people whose lives were cut short by an act of hatred, an act with as many causes—vengeance, jealousy, fanaticism, despair, zealotry, and pride among them—as all of the other acts of hatred in any city, on any continent, in any century.
But that act is not important. What is important is our act of remembering, for memory is our most inexhaustible source of wisdom.
By flying the flag at half-mast, we remember the innocent victims of that day and their families, especially the families now who live all over New York and New Jersey, in your town and mine. Two thousand, nine hundred seventy-seven families, the names of whose loved ones can be read on this memorial flag to my left, which I encourage you to look at in the Todd Quad when you have a chance today. We remember those families, but we also remember the conscious choices of others, the first responders and military personnel in New York and Washington, those who knowingly rushed into harm’s way in hopes of saving others they did not know or, later, in hopes of finding some token of a treasured life, thus giving individual families closure. We remember those who lost their lives both in the blink of an eye and with the passage of time.
I will always remember that day. I was in class with my students. It was shortly before ten o’clock in the morning. My colleague came into my room and said, “Bring your students with you. You have to see this—to see what’s going on.” We watched the first tower fall, and I was filled, completely filled with anger. At the same time, I was filled with a sense of powerlessness. I wanted to do something to respond, but in that moment, there was nothing I could do. You may have felt something like that in your lives. You may be able to understand how I felt that day.
This year, we again saw a malignant force strike at New York and New Jersey, and once again first responders rushed in to help those stricken by this dreadful disease in every county, city, and neighborhood, and some of them, again, lost their own lives trying to make strangers’ lives more bearable. Their courage and sacrifice are an inexhaustible source of comfort.
So what do we do here today? Why do we stop to remember so much grief? Why do we, in our moment of relative weakness and relative hardship in 2020, remember such sadness in 2001? Why do we take a moment or two to be silent? Perhaps for this: that we can see today for what it is, a luxury to be together, even if we are apart for a time, when so many others will be apart from their loved ones forever. Perhaps so we can appreciate those among us, like Mr. Bailey and Mr. Flynn, Mr. Martin and Mr. DeVergillo, who have been first responders and who still work to keep us safe. Or perhaps so we can remember that vengeance, jealousy, fanaticism, and pride have never been the piers upon which we should build a life, and so we can remember that hatred only leads to and from the dark cave of fear.
Therefore, we toll the bells that signify the moments when the towers were struck, and we pause in silence for a minute to remember the dead. For a few moments, our voices turn inward to reflect on how we can lose our own fears, jealousies, and perceived slights. And then, hopefully, we will raise our voices ever after for courage, unity, and love.
We will be silent in reflection until the bells toll again, marking the moment the second plane struck the second tower.