It is an honor to be here with you to observe one of the events that has most profoundly shaped this country in the 21st century. The memorial brings home so many lessons, and reminds us of so many people to grieve for. We mourn the heroes who brought down a jet in a field not far from here to avoid even worse disaster. We mourn the victims of the attack in New York. We mourn the first-responders who selflessly stepped in to help, to save, to comfort, to do damage control, to manage the chaos and the unmanageable. What we learn from them is the basic human imperative to come to the aid of our fellow human beings, putting aside all social, political, racial, cultural, economic differences. When people are in trouble, we have a profound obligation to respond. That's what common decency, what the highest calling, and what the best of human nature all demand.
I'm struck by the fact that the events of 9/11 caught us at different points in our lives. For me, it happened while my children were eight and 12 years old. We were getting ready to move abroad together, and the new, scary, vulnerability of travel and of terrorism threw a whole different light on that plan. I remember vividly struggling with how to talk to my children about it. How could I explain the vast scale of the tragedy, the impact on human lives but also on how we live, what we can take for granted, what we need to be watchful of, what we are willing to do in the face of tragedy and danger?
For many of you, our students, this event happened when you were very young children. As President John Bravman said recently, our first-year class, the class of 2020, may be the last group to have any personal memory of the event. From here on, for future classes, 9/11 is an historical event, not a lived event, and it is our responsibility to make sure that they do not forget what it meant to the US and to the world, just as with other major disasters and tragedies that they will learn about second-hand from news coverage, text books, and others' personal narratives.
A remarkable phenomenon of the reaction to 9/11 is that many people struggled to find a way to express their bewilderment, their grief, their sense of how the world had changed. There was a huge outpouring of poetry, among other forms of expression. We have anthologies of 9/11 poetry, web sites that post poems written at the time and ever since. And those poems cover the whole range of perspectives on the event, the whole range of emotions, in every possible style and register.
I've chosen two short poems that I want to share with you today.
The first is by X.J. Kennedy. Here it is:
September Twelfth, 2001
X. J. Kennedy
Two caught on film who hurtle
from the eighty-second floor,
choosing between a fireball
and to jump holding hands,
aren't us. I wake beside you,
stretch, scratch, taste the air,
the incredible joy of coffee
and the morning light.
Alive, we open eyelids
on our pitiful share of time,
we bubbles rising and bursting
in a boiling pot.1
The second was written by school children — eight-year-olds, whose teacher had lost a relative in the incident. Here is what the children wrote:
List of "Don't Forgets" and "Remembers"
We were eight.
Before September 11th, we would wake up with a list of "Don't Forgets"
Don't forget to wash your face
Don't forget to brush your teeth
Don't forget to do your homework
Don't forget to wear your jacket
Don't forget to clean your room
Don't forget to take a bath
After September 11th, we wake up with a list of "Remembers"
Remember to greet the sun each morning
Remember to enjoy every meal
Remember to thank your parents for their hard work
Remember to honor those who keep you safe
Remember to value each person you meet
Remember to respect other's beliefs
Now we are nine.2
What am I asking you to retain from these short pieces?
That even in the face of the unthinkable, we have to find a way to carry on. We, those still living, have the luxury and the obligation to enjoy that cup of coffee, the morning light, the privilege of
waking up next to someone you love. We have to enjoy and make use of our "pitiful share of time," even if we can't know what will happen to the bubbles we are in the boiling pot of life.
Like the school children, we have long "Don't Forget" lists, but we also, like them, have "Remember" lists. The "remembers" in the poem are wise beyond the years of those children. We would do well to embrace them. They were eight, and then they were a sobered, less childlike, very different nine. You were young children, toddlers even. Now you are adults. And you carry the obligation to remember, even while greeting the sun every morning.
1 from The Lords of Misrule: Poems 1992-2001 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002)
2 http://www.celebrate-american-holidays.com/9-11-Poems.html. Consulted 9 September 2016.