Thank you, Professor, for all you taught me on Sept. 11, 2001 and beyond

Newly released audio from TSA on 9/11

The events of 9/11 as they unfolded through actual audio of first responders, air traffic controllers, dispatch personnel, airline employees, pilots, and citizens.
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The events of 9/11 as they unfolded through actual audio of first responders, air traffic controllers, dispatch personnel, airline employees, pilots, and citizens.

Like most Americans, I wake up heavy every 9/11. This year, I also woke up remembering the Shakespeare class I was in that day at the University of Minnesota, and how teachers open us up and change the way we think about the world.

I was 36 years old. And I should not have been in Professor Leyasmeyer’s—Archie’s—class that day. But when I’d decided to go back to college a few years earlier, I’d confidently signed up for Beginning Shakespeare only to drop it after only two classes. The teacher, a woman whose name I can’t recall, spoke in fancy literary terms and rattled off so much Shakespearean prose I felt ashamed, like I did not belong with those kids almost 20 years my junior, like I wasn’t smart enough to be there.

Of course, I didn’t tell anyone at the time. Not my husband or my kids, who were so proud of me for going back to school. And certainly not my mother, who was, at only 56, in end-stage COPD and emphysema, and who busied herself telling every doctor and nurse she saw how smart I was, how proud she was of me. I just quietly dropped the class and moved on. Later. I would try again.

Which is how I found myself in Lind Hall, in Archie’s classroom, on 9/11.

It was late morning. We didn’t know what was happening yet, but I remember looking up at the sky a lot, at the tops of buildings, as there were many (thankfully false) reports that there could be more attacks and they didn’t know where. I remember what a gorgeous, sunny, Fall day it was. I remember the half-empty parking lot. I remember walking across campus and how eerie it felt with so few students there. But our class? Our class was full.

Teri Carter

We were studying King Lear. Archie was elderly then, a year or so from retirement after 30 years teaching, and he began by saying he knew we were all worried, but there was nothing we could do at this moment. “So let’s learn,” he said. “For the next 85 minutes, let’s take turns reading aloud, and let’s find comfort in the beautiful history of language.”

And so, we read.

“The weight of this sad time we must obey,

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

The oldest hath borne most: we that are young

Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

“No, I’ll not weep.

I have full cause of weeping, but this heart

Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,

Or ere I’ll weep.”

In the end, it was Archie who, when it was his turn, who simply went silent. He leaned back onto the front of his desk, looked at us, his class, and cried. Then he stood by the door, his worn copy of King Lear in one hand, and hugged each of us as we left class.

Firefighter Joe Appleget leads members of the Lexington Fire Department’s Honor Guard as they prepare to raise the U.S. flag during a wreath-laying service Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019, at Lexington’s Phoenix Park to commemorate first responders killed in the 9/11 attack in 2001. Ryan C. Hermens rhermens@herald-leader.com

Fast forward 18 years. When I turned on my laptop, I went looking for Archie.

But as happens to so many of us now, the first thing I saw was a Trump tweet. It was jarring. Minutes before he was set to be on the White House lawn to lead a 9/11 remembrance, he wrote, “If it weren’t for the never ending Fake News about me, and with all that I have done (more than any other President in the first 2 1/2 years!), I would be leading the “Partners” of the LameStream Media by 20 points. Sorry, but true!”

Who finds comfort in language like this? And yet, this is what we live with now, from our president, on the 18th anniversary of 9/11.

I found Archie’s obituary. He died in October 2016. It read, “Born in Latvia in 1935, Leyasmeyer was living in a refugee camp in southern Germany at the end of WWII. At 14, he arrived in the US, knowing no English. At 18, he enrolled at Harvard. He went on to get his Masters and PhD from Princeton.”

He once wrote, “the richness of human life and cultures on this little blue-white planet, so beautiful, so fragile, floating in the darkness of space.” Thank you, Professor, for teaching me and so many the joy of Shakespeare, the joy of language. To showing me I belonged.