This week, I asked my first-year college students where they were on September 11, 2001. I found myself in some good and varied discussions. One of the discussions got me thinking about communication, then and now. An interpreter (stepping out of her role at the request of curious students) recalled a friend who interpreted the live TV news for deaf employees where she worked when the closed captions went garbled. That was a memorable job. The front page of the September 12 Washington Post featured tweets with the hashtag #wherewereyou, a combination of smooshedtogether punctuation and phrasing that would have meant little to anyone 12 years ago.* Now half a billion Twitter users around the world could recognize it and regularly share their thoughts using that convention.
The Post introduced its lead story with the reminder: “First-graders on Sept. 11, 2001, are college freshmen now.” Yes, indeed. But it turns out six-year-olds see and remember more than I would have guessed, and 18-year-olds’ thoughts run deeper than the next kegger.
I was in a West African dance class at Oberlin college when I heard about the tragedy, during a time when my thoughts may have run too deep. Even in my senior year, I still resided in the skin of a thinker and analyzer, and quietly rejoiced that I’d found more like me — many more, with far more profound thoughts to share and act upon than I. I remember a friend who knew I was from New York asking, “Are you okay?” and I responded “Yes, I’m okay. I wrote in my journal.” I was too embarrassed to share that part with the students.
As Raymond Carver showed in the short story, “What we talk about when we talk about love,” the meaning of some conversations has little to do with what we say, and everyone involved knows it. In my classes we talked about what a five-hour walk home to Brooklyn feels like as thousands of souls expire and your bladder threatens to give out, and how a Canadian tyke can remain oblivious to disaster just to the south, while a French girl remembers clear TV images and worry about an attack on her own capital city. That talk skittered across the nature of memory, the limits and vastness of children’s perception, the emptiness of revenge and where paranoia can take us. We also got into racial profiling, including the phenomenon of “flying while brown,” at which point my dear millennials noted this acronym coincides with another commonly used phrase. Okay, so sometimes our thoughts only run as deep as a shot glass.
*Though smooshing words together isn’t all that new. I’ve been reading Faulkner, who in the ’40s was pressing together words with the aplomb of a German panini griller for such gems as “womanpinksmelling.”