The first time my college canceled classes during my undergrad, a Nor’Easter was brewing off the Massachusetts coast. It promised snowfall measurable in feet; it promised high winds and higher tides. The night before it was due, we went to the 24-hour CVS in our pajamas; it was the only place open past 9pm in our sleepy college town. I think I bought Swedish Fish, and probably some milk, because that’s what New Englanders do when a big storm’s coming.
The second time my college canceled classes during my undergrad, it was a postcard perfect day in a sleepy, small Northshore Massachusetts town. The sky was perfectly blue, so blue without any clouds to break it up. The leaves were still green, the contrast against that blue almost painful. The sun was bright, the air sweet and warm with the last hints of summer.
The reports started trickling in. It was 2001, so we weren’t as ultraconnected as we are now. We had the luxury of learning things slowly, of horror unfolding a little bit at a time, and it was still hard to process. My eyes couldn’t believe a sky could be that blue. My brain couldn’t believe that something that horrible had happened.
They called off classes when it became clear that the world was a different place, when students couldn’t get through to family in New York or DC or Pennsylvania. They scrambled to hold an emergency chapel session, pulling out Bible verses and hymns, and we went because where else could we go? We sang “It Is Well With My Soul”, meant to be a comfort in times of loss and hardship. I sang it. I harmonized it. It’s a beautiful hymn. Our voices cracked. Chapel ended and we retreated to residence halls, numb, trying to make it well with our souls.
We huddled in the lounge, watching the news on the communal TV, where we watched the morning play itself over and over again, and they talked about it, the same stuff over and over again, with nothing new. As if reiterating it every two minutes could make it make sense, could make it well with our souls, could make us understand.
That night, the skies were silent.
We were a half-hour north of Boston (I used to make extra money doing Logan Airport runs with students on breaks). Air traffic was a buzzing constant I could tune out, until it was gone, and nothing I did made it tune in.
In the intervening years, as the day gets farther into the past, I think about that day. I think about the shock and the tears and finally the silence, of singing “It Is Well With My Soul” and realizing that it wasn’t. I wanted it to be. I wanted to accept it and use that to move on. My first years teaching we’d talk about where we were; my students mostly remembered, had been in middle school. Then elementary school. By the time I left teaching, my oldest students had been in pre-school when it happened and didn’t really remember. Sharing the experience changed.
My morning commute takes me by the town fire station, and each year on this day they hang a huge flag from the top of the extended ladder on the ladder engine, right over Main Street. It’s been eighteen years and I suddenly teared up at that red light, especially when I saw the town department out in the driveway next to the engine, in crisp uniform with hands folded and heads bowed. I wasn’t in New York, or DC, or Pennsylvania that day. I didn’t lose anyone. But my college canceled classes for only the second time in the four years I went there, and for the first time in my memory I didn’t hear planes overhead coming in or out of Boston. I started a perfect day with a good class and ended in a changed world. It’s the only world my son and countless others will ever know. It wasn’t well with my soul, and it still isn’t.
I don’t know if it will ever be.