Kenyon's Response to September 11

It was a brilliantly sunny late summer morning in Gambier, just as it was in New York City, when the news first reached us that there was something unimaginable happening there.

For many of at the College, in classrooms, laboratories, studios, and offices across campus, there were no televisions or radios, only the achingly slow-to-load online accounts of what was happening. One Kenyon employee drove to the Wal-Mart in Mount Vernon at lunchtime, purchased a television, and brought it into her office for the afternoon, reasoning all along that she needed a new television at home. The radios, when we tracked them down, presented us with simile after simile--like a banana peeling, like a candle burning down at warp speed--but none of them were adequate to the job. Who could be expected to describe, on the spot, how two 110-story buildings, filled with thousands of people, could be reduced to an achingly small pile of rubble in a matter of seconds? Or how the Pentagon, that potent symbol of American invincibility, had been breached?

By Wednesday morning, the images of destruction--now seemingly everywhere--were seared into our memories. So was the fear we felt for those we knew, or suspected, were in the buildings or on the planes. A list of alumni whose safety had been confirmed was quickly posted at the College's web site, but, in the end, it would come up two names short.

The Kenyon community, like most in the nation, was not spared. Lee Adler of the Class of 1975, a systems programmer at eSpeed with an office on the one hundred third floor of One World Trade Center, was among the dead. So was Jonathan Connors, a broker with Cantor Fitzgerald with an office on the one hundred fourth floor of One World Trade Center and the father of senior Jonathan Connors. Almost everyone at Kenyon knew, either directly or indirectly, someone who was in or near the World Trade Center.

"Even on this hilltop in Ohio, geographically far from the horrors of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the airliner crash in Pennsylvania, our world was shaken on Tuesday, September 11," said President Robert A. Oden Jr. in a September letter to New York City area alumni. "We want you to know that you are very much in our thoughts at this unprecedented time of both fear and resolve."

On campus, the community found solace, and the beginnings of understanding, in prayer meetings, candlelight vigils, and quiet reflection. On Friday, September 14, Kenyon observed the national day of prayer and remembrance called for by President George W. Bush with ringing of the College bells and an ecumenical service in the chapel. At a symposium on Monday, September 17, several faculty members joined Oden in front of more than five hundred students and other community members in Rosse Hall to deliver talks on topics ranging from religious fundamentalism to the social psychology of terrorist groups, from the cultural and political implications to economic and security concerns. The symposium was followed by discussion groups led by each of the presenters, as well as many informal discussions of the talks throughout the campus, all attempting to come to grips with the enormity of the situation in which the nation found itself.

Kenyon students showed their concern for others in myriad ways in the face of the crisis. They organized blood drives and fundraising efforts. They worked with the teachers at Gambier's Wiggin Street School to help explain the events to the elementary-school children. And they comforted each other in gatherings large and small as the news continued to worsen. In the most dramatic response, three students members of the College Township Fire Department--juniors Oliver Benes of Pepper Pike, Ohio, and Andrew Kalnow of Wilmette, Illinois, and sophomore James "Jeb" Breece IV of Evanston, Illinois--headed to New York City on Wednesday, September 12, to help with the rescue and recovery effort at "Ground Zero."

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, students and members of the administration, faculty, and staff at Kenyon have been attempting to conduct business as usual. But some are asking if life will ever be the same.

"I've heard people say that the world changed on September 11," says Patrick Gilligan, the College's director of counseling services. "It's not so much that the world has changed, though, but rather our beliefs and illusions. Many people were under the illusion that America was a safe haven before September 11. That illusion has been stripped away."

Soon after the attacks, classes resumed, following a one-day suspension on September 11, and athletic events settled back into their regular schedules after a five-day hiatus. A handful of speakers canceled their engagements, but most others proceeded as planned. Aramark, Kenyon's food service, reported a brief but insignificant interruption in food deliveries. And Assistant Professor of Biology Siobhan Fennessy returned to the classroom after being stranded in England for four days.

Other than a smattering of American flags dotted across the Gambier landscape, life on the surface seemed to be normal again after just a few days. Appearances, however, cannot mask the physical changes in the world around us or the emotions that run among us.

"What is normal?," asked Jennie Bruening, then the College's physical education director and head women's volleyball coach. (She accepted a faculty position at the University of Connecticut in December.) "I can't say that life feels normal for me right now. I'm holding practice for the team and conducting daily business, but this has hit so close to home." Of the eleven members of the 2001 women's volleyball team, two were from Manhattan and one from New Jersey.

"I'm seeing students struggle with their views on war. People who have considered themselves to be pacifists are trying to redefine how they feel about things," said Bruening.

Fennessy, who was making a presentation at a conference with senior Abby Rokosch, said she learned of the events on September 11 during a tea break, shortly after she had finished giving her presentation. "Someone came in to break the news, and I thought he was joking," says Fennessy. "People seemed very concerned about us as Americans. People were supportive, which helped, but I was glad to get home. In light of what happened, my being stuck in England was really of the smallest concern."

While the resource center the College established on September 11 to provide community support was in operation only for a short time, some people still find themselves in need of consoling--and may feel that way for some time. A week after the attacks, USA Today reported thousands of Americans, stricken by anxiety and pain after the attacks, were asking for mental health help, many of them for the first time. According to Gilligan, though, people may benefit simply from talking with family members or friends about their fears.

"People at Kenyon are reacting to this in ways that reflect awareness, understanding, and compassion," says Gilligan. "Some tempers have flared, but it's been very limited. For the most part, people are exhibiting the kind of respect we don't see in our culture these days. Comedians like Jay Leno and David Letterman are twiddling their thumbs because so much of their humor is based on disrespect."

The televisions and radios that hummed across offices, lounges, and residence-hall rooms all over campus on the day of the terrorist attacks quickly became less audible. People found themselves trying to balance their need to know with the weariness brought on by the relentless media coverage.

If it's true, as a September 17 article in Canada's National Post suggested, that "it's not what we do, but what we are, that makes Islamic fundamentalists hate us," how do we address that in the context of a liberal-arts education? Some faculty members, including Fred Baumann in political science and Melissa Dabakis in art history, are already incorporating the September 11 events, and the issues they raise, into their courses. According to the College's Course of Study for 2002-03, Baumann will treat the subject in "Transformations in the Relations of Nations," Dabakis in "Memory and Commemoration in American Culture."

Of course, many more faculty members will address the topic, directly or indirectly, in their classrooms in the coming year. As the events of September 11 become part of the American psyche, and as terrorist threats become a more common part of our lives, it's inevitable that the curriculum will be influenced in ways both obvious and subtle, and in ways that we might or might not expect. What, for instance, will be the impact on foreign-language study? Will there be more interest in the recently introduced Arabic courses? And what about religious studies? Will the already popular courses in Islam be filled to overflowing?

Kenyon's people have attempted to return to normal, but that normalcy is tempered by the thought that our world may, indeed, have been forever altered on September 11. As to the specifics of those alterations, only time will tell.

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