Halfway down my street, I started to cry. The primitive emotion uncoiled right from my gut, rose through my throat and out my mouth. Tears, runny nose, contorted face, all within seconds. A well of emotion that had been forming since Tuesday morning had been tapped and rushed to the surface like a geyser. I was relieved that it was dark, but knew that if any of my neighbors had witnessed these Friday night tears they’d have understood at once.
Let me start at the beginning, which was Tuesday September 11, 2001, a day America was changed forever. No need to go into the details, you know them all.
Friday, after days of assessing whether my fourth graders had been traumatized by the extraordinary pictures of death and destruction, and after holding an elementary classroom version of a Day of Remembrance and Mourning, I just wanted to sit down in familiar comfort of home, and let the metaphorical dust of the past days settle without my watching it or listening to it. I needed to unplug. There had been nowhere to be free of the images of destruction or the conversations, so surreal in content.
The school day had been book ended with our morning meeting and a minute of silence at the end of the day. I welcomed the hours in the middle as a pilgrim welcomes an oasis. I poured myself into having my fourth graders learn the names of the chambers of the heart, find prime numbers in their multiplication charts. practice cursive writing, and see how to write a declarative paragraph. Even indoor recess due to rainy weather was a respite.
Elsewhere else reality had been bent out of shape and I had been bent with it.
There was no where to avoid the topic. The endless loop of videotaped carnage I had been seeing since Tuesday had slowly crossed the border in my brain from nightmare to reality, a nightmare come to life. After school, at a physical therapy appointment, I was asked how the kids were taking the scenes of death. At my health club, a fellow member recounted the previous evening’s memorial service for his friend who was on Flight 11. At my local gas station, the Libyan attendant, with whom I’ve had friendly chats for two years, railed about the ruthlessness of the terrorists. In the back of my mind I prayed that this kind man from North Africa wouldn’t be targeted by hateful citizens seeking retribution for the barbarity in New York.
By the time I walked up to my porch, I was in desperate need of refuge. Stuck in my front door was a small note reading
Dear (Oliver Street) Neighbors,
Tonight at 7 PM, please join our neighbors on Oliver Street by lighting a candle on your porch or outside your door. to grieve for those who lost their lives and for all of us whose lives have been forever changed by the sad events of September 11.
Others all over America will also be lighting candles. We are all a community of Oliver Street, of America, and of the world, even with people in the Arab nations.
I walked into my kitchen, too drained to participate. Then I recalled that just that morning I’d told my students how citizens derive strength in times of duress by using symbols, the country’s flag for instance, to provide comfort and resolve in times of sorrow and grief. Wearily, I got up, found a candle, lit it, and put my own little symbol in the front window.
An hour later, rejuvenated by curiosity, I decided to walk down my street to see whether anyone else had complied with the note.
Halfway down the hill I realized that my little street had indeed connected with other communities in America, in some kind of nocturnal communion. Every house but one had candles in sight. Large candles, small votives, solitary candles, massed candles.
The emotional dam I’d built to contain uncertainty, loss, and grief, burst. I cried for me, for the country, for the families of the dead and missing, and for our assumptions about life in America which were blown up with the World Trade Center. But my tears were redemptive as well. I could see that my little neighborhood was surviving on its own, in its own little way, and was part of other little streets across this great and flawed country surviving and regenerating in the same way.
I never thought I’d see anything as powerful as the fireball I saw on Tuesday. Somehow, in time, the small glow of those candles on my neighbor's porches is going to outshine that horrible sight.
Paul Tamburello is a teacher and writer who’s taught fourth grade in Brookline since 1970.