Adrienne Onofri















Hope at the Edge of the Abyss
Alumna who teaches near the World Trade Center site takes solace from her students.

by Adrienne Onofri

One thing my two alma maters have in common, I had been saying since I went to Pace University for graduate school, is a great view. While Northwestern has Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline, at Pace there is a vista of the splendid trio of bridges that span the lower East River and the steeples of Lower Manhattan: City Hall, the Woolworth Building and, three blocks from campus, the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

On Sept. 11 that view gave Pace’s students, faculty and employees a front-row seat to history and terror. I was on campus that morning, beginning my third year as an adjunct instructor. In the weeks that followed, I would have to reassure my students, get them back on track in their lives and schoolwork and help them to both understand the myriad issues related to the tragedy and to learn from it.

The first challenge was maintaining my composure, and I actually did manage to get through the semester dry-eyed. The hardest time was when a student assistant, who had been so vivacious when the school year began, sobbed about being unable to sleep after seeing bodies hurtling through the air.

With their teenage bravado many students were reluctant to admit their rage and fear. Or they believed that not talking about it would make it go away. One day I faced a chorus of "Why do you keep bringing this up?" Several complained about the 9/11-related classwork they were getting: "We just want to forget about it and get on with our lives."

My first instinct was to respond, "It’s not that simple!" I wanted them to understand the implications of the incident, to think about issues like human rights, foreign policy, religious extremism. The assignments I had given dealt with what the events of 9/11 and afterward showed us about human nature and how our cultural life and personal conduct have been altered by the experience.

There were, of course, moments of candor from the students about their anxiety. One confessed, "I’m afraid ... of everything. Of going to sleep and not waking up, of a plane flying into my building, of leaving home and never returning." A few students from Brooklyn occasionally stayed home to avoid taking the subway or crossing a bridge.

This year’s first-year students were just starting grade school when the Cold War ended, so they’d grown up without the specter of nuclear annihilation and in a period mostly of economic prosperity. Now their sense of security was shattered. Four Pace students and more than 30 alumni were killed on Sept. 11, and about 250 students withdrew from school, citing the attacks as the reason.

Those who remained carried on in a truly distressing environment for a U.S. campus. As one of my students wrote in her journal in mid-October: "It’s not normal to head to school where you see soldiers and policemen stationed at every corner as though it is a war zone. It is not normal to wake up hoping for a breath of fresh air but instead you wake up to a strong odor of smoke and of the dead."

Yet these journals, as well as class discussions and even just the sight of students gathered, smiling, in the lounge or on the plaza, showed their resolve to have all the experiences that come with being a college student. "In life one may take many chances, and I am definitely taking mine," one of my students wrote. "This attack is not going to stop me from succeeding."

While many students advocated revenge, they nonetheless raised thoughtful questions about harming civilians as the terrorists had done, and about the United States’ putative invulnerability before the 11th.

Perhaps the most generous reactions came from two students whose fathers had died earlier in the year. One young man pitied the families of 9/11 victims because they didn’t get to say goodbye or to bury their loved ones. The other, whose father passed away after a long illness, wrote, "On Sept. 11, we didn’t have the opportunity to prepare ourselves for the inevitable."

Teaching at Pace put me in the midst of tragedy, but working with these young people has given me a purposefulness I’d be hard-pressed to get elsewhere. Being so close to ground zero allowed me to pay my respects to those who perished. And my students’ fortitude and optimism heartened me in a way I had never imagined.

Adrienne Onofri (J85) received a master’s degree in education from Pace University in 1997. In addition to teaching, she is a freelance writer and editor, specializing in travel, entertainment and social issues.