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Teaching RW1 in Fall 2001

By Samuel G. Freedman
Columbia Journalism School Professor

On the Tuesday morning of September 11, 2001, I went out running instead of coming straight to the Journalism School. All of my RW1 students were already out covering the primary election on their respective beats around the city. After I showered and dressed, I went to vote on my way into the office. Only when I got there did I find out about the first and then the second planes hitting the World Trade Center.

Some of my faculty colleagues reached their students and urged them to head to Lower Manhattan and start reporting. Maybe it says less of me as a journalist, but I reacted more as a teacher and, perhaps, a surrogate parent. I instructed my students, the ones I could contact, to get home as soon and as safely as possible. Now that a third plane had struck the Pentagon and a fourth had crashed into a Pennsylvania meadow, apparently while aiming toward Washington, there was no telling when and where the next attack would take place.

One of my students, Kerry Sheridan, had to defy my advice. Her husband had been working as an office temp that day in the World Financial Center building that was adjacent to the World Trade Center complex. She had not been able to reach him by phone. I remembered having read Kerry’s admissions application the previous winter and given it high marks. When she turned up in my RW1 class I reminded her of her essay about loving baseball. We chatted about her writing a freelance piece about being 3,000 miles away from her cherished San Francisco Giants while Barry Bonds was trying to set a new home run record. In the days before September 11, things like that actually seemed important.

By nightfall on September 11, Kerry had made her way on foot from a Brooklyn poll to the sealed-off rim of the World Trade Center to her apartment in Morningside Heights, where she found her husband alive and unharmed. With that fear removed from my mind, I turned to a broader question. In a way, an editor has it easy when an earthshaking event occurs; the obvious reaction, the professional reflex, is to assign reporters to the story. But how does an educator react? What do you do? How do you address 16 students, some of whom had never done any journalism before starting RW1, when a monumental, communal tragedy happens two weeks into their training?

I thought back to my high school journalism and English teacher, Robert W. Stevens, my first great mentor. On the day of the moratorium against the Vietnam War in October 1969, all of the teachers in our school were expected to discuss the war in their classes – partly to make sure students didn’t cut school en masse to attend anti-war rallies. Mr. Stevens said nothing overtly about Vietnam in freshman honors English that day. He brought out a print of Picasso’s masterpiece, “Guernica,” and led a conversation about how art and the artist grapple with war, which in Picasso’s case had meant the Spanish Civil War. Throughout my teaching career, I have kept a lithograph of “Guernica” in my office.

So when my RW1 class assembled on September 13 for its first session after the attacks, I brought in two pieces of writing, and simply read them aloud. One was an essay about the Vietnam Veterans memorial in Washington – Maya Lin’s ebony wall of names – that had been composed by a Vietnam veteran turned journalist named Michael Norman. The other was a short narrative that a former student of mine, Leah Hager Cohen, had written for an elective I taught at Columbia in 1991. It described a game between two elementary-school basketball teams in New England being played against the backdrop of the Persian Gulf War. With these two works of prose, one about loss and mourning and the other about the persistence of life, I hoped to give my students some of the emotional equipment they would need. And I hoped to show them, by example, the role of writing and writers.

In all the years since then, I have never asked any of those RW1 students whether I succeeded or failed, whether I moved them or bored them. I only know that my RW1 class in 2001 was unlike any RW1 class I have taught in more than 20 years at the Journalism School.

I never did send those students down to Ground Zero, as the former World Trade Center site soon became known. I implored them instead, to write about how the ripples of the catastrophe were being felt on the neighborhoods they covered. They came back with stories about a newfound patriotism among Dominican immigrants in Washington Heights, an impromptu shrine that appeared in an Inwood park, a Muslim mortician unable to perform religious funerals for Muslim victims of the attack because there were not intact bodies, as Islamic practice requires.

Despite my usual ban on first-person articles in RW1, I allowed Kerry Sheridan to write about her furtive search for her husband on September 11. On a day several weeks later when I assigned the students breaking-news stories, I dispatched her to the funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for several firefighters who had died at Ground Zero. Unable to get inside the packed cathedral, Kerry instead began talking to the members of the Fire Department’s bagpipers’ band, which was playing at the funeral.

The band, it turned out, went on to perform at every single funeral or memorial service for every one of the 343 firefighters who perished. Kerry wrote about the band for her final project in RW1, a long-form narrative. Then she took my course in bookwriting and developed a book proposal on the subject. It was ultimately published by Rutgers University Press as “Bagpipe Brothers.” It is a work of witness and consolation.

I hope never to experience another September 11 in my lifetime. But if I do, and if I am teaching, I will read Kerry’s words to my students.

Posted by: FacultyFaculty May 2012

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