It was Tuesday, 19 years ago, just after breakfast. PBS carried what sounded like a book review on the radio: something about airplanes hitting towers in New York. Switching the radio over to another station, I found it, too, carried the same story. I was on my way to Fargo to get some art supplies for my students. The radio and my dog were keeping me company that beautiful morning, and I wasn’t wanting to hear about a sad plot for a book review.
Pulling in at Grandma’s Attic in Valley City, I overheard the lady at the front say something about a bombing. Wow. It sounded like they were talking about the book review I had heard. Soon, a shopper was discussing the same thing with another lady. I decided to ask at the front cashier. “What is this you’re talking about: this bombing?”
“New York’s Trade towers were just hit by airplanes … and they were our airplanes!” she answered. My heart sank. Suddenly, life stopped as I knew it, and it was 1969 all over again.
Tears welling up, I had to get to Fargo. The kids needed paint but not for their assignments. Now they needed paint because they would on Wednesday do paintings of what had happed today …that day … that Tuesday morning when their lives changed forever.
Arriving in Fargo, I saw the mall was closed. Thirteenth Avenue was like a funeral cordon just passed by. The art stores were closed. Even the grocery stores had “Closed” signs posted. Some included hand-painted “Pray for America” written on them. I drove home without supplies.
On Wednesday, the 12th, the drawing and painting classes had one task: paint how they felt about the events of 9-11. They had pieces of white cloth, about 2 feet by 4 and they had house paint I brought from home, some brushes and photos of eagles, the Pentagon, White House and our flag.
They painted quietly and were searching for ways to illustrate what was in their hearts. There were some tears. A few had relatives connected to New York and the military. Everyone felt the threat of loss and instability. North Dakota may have been 1400 miles away, but that day it might as well have been on campus.
They recorded how they felt. They painted their fears. Light conversation began and they each had to describe for the class how they felt. Some said they couldn’t describe it in words but they could paint it.
Those same emotions returned this past March when college students left for spring break and we as Earthlings were facing another time-stopping moment: COVID -19.
I knew nothing was ever going to be the same … just as I did Tuesday of 2001. Nothing COULD ever be the same. The earth had been hit with a different kind of bomb, and our sole defense would be to isolate and cover our bodies so that novel coronavirus could not reach us. Other people were our enemies. They could knock down our personal lives … our tower … and kill us, just as those 3,000 souls were killed that day 19 years ago.
School could not resume. Students and professors had to arrange for online replacement instructions as spring rolled along and cases rose daily. Among the assignments I gave the kids to do was write how you feel about what has happened. I encouraged them to keep a daily calendar, a diary really, of their days, how they felt about everything, and to draw pictures. Some students turned in their diary as credit for a final paper in art history. No books at home: All supplies were at school, and wherever they were, their art supplier was closed.
Coping under stress is hard. It’s hard for people who have been through other tough times and managed to get to the other side. But coping teaches us some important things: patience, preparation, prayer and action; traits 9-11 taught us, and now COVID-19 is teaching the world.
If anyone has an item for this column, please contact Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.