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Starting Point

‘A hero because he told me not to be sad’


This afternoon, in the English office of the high school where I work as an administrator, one of my colleagues said, “Yesterday my 3-year-old grandson was stacking up his Legos, and then he pretended that he crashed a plastic plane into the little building he just constructed.” How do we, as adults, explain to children the images of evil they have been seeing for the past weeks? Perhaps by doing what we have been doing since the beginning of our human existence: telling stories.

Literature is filled with stories of courage, hope and dignity in the face of all that is lost. Willa Cather’s Antonia maintained her sense of hope and goodness in the maul of the rugged and hostile prairies of Nebraska. John Steinbeck’s Ma Joad tried to keep her family together as they made their way through the Oklahoma dust bowl. Atticus Finch fought the striking claws of racism as he defended Tom Robinson.

Another teacher later in the day said, as we stood in the hallway between classes, “My brother was on the 21st floor in 1 World Trade Center. After the jet crashed into the floors above him, he quickly left his office and began walking down the long stairwell. Soon enough, firemen, young men in their 20s, were making their way up the stairs past him to tend to the fire. My brother said that he and the others cheered the firemen as they rushed upward. They were running up to their deaths, and my brother was running down to life.”

While I was preparing material for a new teacher, Gina Sudol, a 10th grade teacher, stepped into the office to get some books and said, “I’m so tired.”

“Didn’t sleep well last night?” I asked.

“Well,” Gina said, “My husband and I were watching the news at 11 p.m., and a city spokesman was saying they needed clothes, food and equipment. My husband turned to me, and I to him and we both knew that we had to do something, so we drove to a 24-hour Home Depot and bought $700 worth of shovels. We loaded them up and drove through the Lincoln Tunnel to the Jacob Javits Center.

“There were hundreds of people bringing things. A man stopped us and said, ‘Clothes around the corner. Food to the left. What do you have?’ ”

“We said we had shovels. Within seconds, it seemed, an Army Humvee pulled alongside our car, and the shovels were immediately transported from our car into the green military vehicle, and a soldier quickly drove off towards the ruin of the World Trade Center.”

For me, the most poignant story I heard in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks were the words spoken between a husband and wife. As reported in The New York Times, Lyzbeth Glick of Hewitt, N.J. spoke on a cell phone with her husband, Jeremy, as his plane was being hijacked. Jeremy was telling his wife that he and some others were going to try to overpower the terrorists. “He was a man who wouldn’t let things happen,” Lyzbeth said. “He was a hero for what he did, but he was a hero for me because he told me not to be sad … ”

Many years from now, today’s children will be studying in their history books about Sept.11, 2001. Let them read about a 20-year-old fireman rushing up the stairs of the World Trade Center because he thinks he might be able to save someone.

Let the children of the future hear the story of a suburban couple who drove through the night with newly bought shovels in the hope that this small act might make a difference in someone’s life.

Above all else, teach the children the story of the husband telling his wife, “Do not be sad.” We’ll all go to our deaths with lives lived, with regrets and joys, with sorrows and victories. So what do we say to those we love when our lives are done, when all else is left behind? We say, dear children, “Do not be sad.” For in those words are the words of a human and spiritual hope that there is a place of joy either in the memories of a life well-lived, or in the promise of a life that is still yet to come.

In the end, Ma Joad, Antonia, and Jeremy Glick of Hewitt, N.J., were not deterred from the hope of joy and goodness. Do not be sad. n

Christopher de Vinck’s most recent book is Compelled to Write to You. He is a public school administrator and lives in Pompton Plains, N.J.

National Catholic Reporter, September 28, 2001