The College at Ground Zero

by

02/02/2002

West Street and Chambers Street, ny. Ny 10013

Neighborhood: World Trade Center

My class started the fall semester in the beautiful rooms of newly renovated Fiterman Hall, the south annex of Borough of Manhattan Community College, and finished in a trailer on West Street across from the barge port where trucks dump debris from the World Trade Center.

“Have a good weekend and keep up with your reading,” I said to my students as they filed out on September 7. I erased the homework for our next session: 11:30 on September 11. It was a typical remedial reading class at BMCC. Almost all my students were immigrants who had to pass this noncredit course before taking English 101. We had met four times and I walked out of Fiterman Hall that Friday afternoon thinking we were off to a good start.

After the attack, the main campus was commandeered. Rescue workers slept in the café and showered in the gym. My department set up an Internet bulletin board to stay in touch. I learned that everyone had evacuated the school safely, but we worried about students who worked in the neighborhood. The World Trade Center was four blocks from Chambers Street, where BMCC is located. 

Amazingly, the college reopened on October 2, with conference rooms, lounges and cafes doubling as classrooms in every available sapce in the central building. Trailers or modular classrooms lined the campus. I was anxious about returning, but pinned on my American flag button and wrote my students a welcome-back letter, not sure what to expect. Could we ever take up where we had left off?

Smoke was still rising from the wreckage as I exited the subway. I put on a face mask and walked to the main building. The front hallway was decorated with banners and cards of support from community college students around the country. BMCC had become the only college in America to have its campus damaged in a terrorist attack.

During our first session back, I invited the students who were there that day to tell their stories. A young woman named Nelisha said Fiterman Hall shook so much she thought it was an earthquake. “I grabbed my friend and we got the hell out,” she said. “Class was still going on.” Everyone heard the impact of the planes. Two of my students saw people jumping. “Eight people,” Kerry said thoughtfully. Deedra noted that it was depressing on campus now. How could it not be?

We spent the second half of class doing the work we were supposed to do on 9/11. My students seemed eager to get back to some semblance of a normal life, and I sensed relief when I told them to get into their groups and start discussing the book assigned that last Friday. I felt then that we would somehow get through this semester. The issue now was how much to address the attack in my curriculum.

During the next class, I asked them to write about how they felt they had been changed by September 11. Some recurrent themes in their responses were fear of the future and an abrupt awakening to their mortality: “I will never again be able to go about the day as carefree as before.” “I was sure the USA was a safe country, but now I am afraid.” “I used to look at the World Trade Center and imagine that some day I would sit there in a high office.”

The first month was stressful. I tried to run the class normally, giving mid terms and holding conferences, but we jumped every time a plane flew overheard. The campus was encircled by a gigantic crime scene, protected by police and the national guard. Every day, we walked past the smoking ruins and breathed the acrid air. Keeping the class moving forward with their assignments began to feel like my patriotic duty, not just my job.

At the height of the national security alerts and the anthrax scare, I brought in an article about dealing with anxiety. My students were unnerved about being near the site and scared to take the train into Manhattan. As one student explained, “Professor, they’re not gonna bomb a black neighborhood in Queens.”

While I avoided the air quality issue in class, I worried about it, especially since class was held in a trailer across from the barge port. Every dump of debris sent giant plumes into the air. I felt angry about being exposed to chemicals, then guilty about feeling angry. After all, I was alive and had a job, even if the circumstances were not ideal. I contacted the union and lobbied for better air filters on the trailers, though these did not arrive until December.

On October 30, the college held a memorial service for the BMCC students (eight current and several former) lost in the attack. Two were fire fighters. A sister and brother died together — she was a hostess at Windows on the World and got her younger brother a job there too. A shrine was erected in the main lobby and students wrote messages there, mourning their classmates. What really got me was when I saw a little white bag with a note attached that read: “I brought you some of your favorite candy. I love you.”

About 600 BMCC students dropped out after September 11, out of a population of approximately 17,000. When school broke for the holiday, I wondered how many would return next semester.

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