The 9/11 terrorist attacks prompted some parents to pull their children out of school. Some students cut class. It was a day to suspend the normal routine and gather in front of the TV.

At Christopher Newport University, professor Roberta Rosenberg didn’t think that made a lot of sense.

“Schools usually cancel classes and send kids home – often to empty places,” said Rosenberg, an English professor. “Students have nothing to do and they turn on the television and basically watch the same catastrophe over and over.”

Better to talk about it, she reasoned. Besides, on Sept. 11, 2001, she had the perfect lesson prepared.

She was about to discuss Part Five of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” It is titled “What the Thunder Said,” and she was drawn to a particular passage that day.

Falling towers

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria

Vienna London

Unreal

She held class and her students talked about the poem. They also began to explore how they felt about the tragedy still unfolding.

“They were really quite shocked because they were vulnerable,” she said.

After class ended, she knew they would retreat to televisions and watch the towers fall over and over again.

Unburdening themselves

The attacks would speak to another group of Rosenberg’s students in a deeper way. Three years later, she used the World Trade Center attacks as a teaching tool for a class of honors freshmen in a writing course.

The students had three tasks. First, write an essay on how they felt about the 9/11 attacks. It would not be graded, but it would get their thoughts on paper. Even after three years, the papers evoked denial, anger and fear, Rosenberg recalled

One student said it was the first time his mother didn’t have an explanation for what was happening. Another student wanted to pick up a gun, go do something, exact revenge for the pain of the nation.

After that essay, the students had to pick an entry from “110 Stories: New York Writes after September 11,” a collection of short stories, memoirs and poems from various New Yorker perspectives.

The student who had wanted to seek revenge after 9/11 selected a story written by a Muslim man who was caught on the subway that day.

“After he read that, he realized that hurting Muslims or hurting other people – or seeing it as us versus them – that that was no answer,” she said.

The final assignment required them to read their initial essay and assess how their feelings changed — if at all — after reading the 9/11 accounts from New York.

“What I found was that the students, in a way, unburdened themselves,” she said, “and they actually talked about such important things and their feelings about it. I could actually see the power of storytelling.”

Write about it

The experience of writing, she said, can’t be compared to the passive experience of watching a catastrophe unfold on TV and having images inflicted on you.

Storytelling “allows us to understand what we think about things. Sometimes we say to students, ‘Write about it,’ because you don’t know what you think until you write about it,” she said.

That’s not to say Rosenberg’s 9/11 experience was purely academic. Six months before the attack, her son was working on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center. He left the job because he didn’t want to live in New York anymore.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Rosenberg was driving onto campus and thought of the day when she visited her son for the first time.

“They were designing the floor. They hadn’t put the walls in yet. And I looked out at the 104th floor and the first thing I said to him was, ‘What would happen in an emergency if you had to get out of this building, Jacob?’ We were so high that airplanes were flying right outside.

“And I sat in the car and cried for a few minutes, and then I came into school.”

Roberta Rosenberg

Home: Newport News

Background: professor of English, believer in storytelling

Location on Sept, 11, 2001: Christopher Newport University