In 2001, I was a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Any given Tuesday I was up and at ‘em with, well, about five others on campus. We were the executive board members of the National Residence Hall Honorary–which is to say, we were nerds. And we nerds met early every Tuesday morning to plan more ways to recognize leadership and service in the residence halls. (Did I mention we were nerds?)
We were happy nerds. And busy nerds. So we beat the crowds and the breakfast rush at Burger King and met in the empty student union food court to talk about how we could make our communities more positive places to live.
That morning was like all of the rest. I wasn’t the first one to arrive, but I wasn’t the last. I pulled out my planner and flipped to the day’s date where I kept a Post-It note with a list of thoughts I didn’t want to forget for the meeting. Each item had a small box to the left of it; I would draw a little check mark inside each box after I addressed it.
As usual, we decided to start our meeting with only one of our two advisors present. Liz regularly ran late, which was an endearing quality actually, since she always showed up with a sincere apology and a smile. We were only a few minutes in that day before she arrived. As usual, she hurried in with a bunch of papers in one hand, coffee in the other, and a bag slung over her shoulder. The five of us looked at her, anticipating the standard, “I’m sorry I’m late, guys,” but we never got it. Liz was not smiling that day.
A silence suspended between us before she said, “Have you guys heard? There’s been an attack on the World Trade Center.”
The sentence hung in the air. The few details she provided swirled in the space beneath, the words and phrases tumbling over one another: planes, hijacked, towers, terrorism… I had yet to see the images and, thankfully, couldn’t yet create them in my mind. “That’s all I know,” Liz finished. And, with little understanding of what to do next, we half-heartedly wrapped up our business. I closed my planner, leaving multiple boxes on my list unchecked. We sat.
“I bet it was Osama bin Laden,” another board member said. Keith, our other co-advisor, nodded.
In those moments I went from being sheltered by my own ignorance to being struck by it. It wasn’t simply that I couldn’t grasp the reality of the events—surely, no one could blame me for that—but I was oblivious to the circumstances surrounding it. Never could I have conjured up the name Osama bin Laden, because I had never heard of him. I was 20 years old, a college student, a good student, a nerd in every academic sense of the word, and suddenly I was stunned by my own lack of knowledge.
The meeting was over, but we lingered—which proved to be the way many of us would go about the following days. We’d congregate and we’d linger. We congregated in the TV lounge of the student union, 80 or more, at least 30 over capacity; and we lingered. We congregated in the hallways of our dorms, the open doors allowing the latest headlines from the 24-hour television news cycle to interrupt our conversations; and we lingered. We congregated in lecture halls and, after our professor stepped forward, paused and said, “I just don’t think we should be here right now,” and left, we lingered.
We all reacted differently and handled it, or didn’t, in our own way. The guy living a few doors down blasted Outkast’s “B.O.B.” from his room. The guy across the hall packed up his military gear and waited by the phone for a deployment call. When I realized there was very little I could do, I, as a resident assistant, made my residents new, patriotic door decorations.
It seemed foolish even while I was printing each name next to the American flag.
I seemed foolish.
That day I realized how much I didn’t know. About the world, about life. I realized that, despite being a great student, my education was incomplete, insufficient.
We spend our formative years enrolled and sometimes engaged in a system that seems to equate numbers with knowledge, grades with understanding. I had figured out how to succeed in that system. But that day, September 11, 2001, I realized I had a lot more to figure out about the world and about life.
I have a lot more to learn.