For many of a certain age, it was a day that stood still, frozen in our collective memory. “Where were you?” And then, their eyes stare off as they recount how the sky was a brilliant blue and the temperature was just perfect. For Upper School English teacher Bill Martino, he was a sophomore at Fordham University sitting in a Philosophical Ethics class on September 11 when the teacher canceled the class, told the students to return to their dorms, and call their parents if they could.
Martino still carries his spiral notebook from his class, meticulously jotted with his handwritten cursive explaining Palamedes Argument. “I don’t know what this means anymore,” he said of the content. “The kids think I’m making up that this was my notebook from September 11th, and I have my notes right here. This was exactly the moment when the professor told us we had to go back to our rooms and call our parents. Something told me to keep that notebook, and I kept it.”
Perhaps Martino’s proximity to the events of that day, both physically and psychically, makes him the perfect person to teach the senior elective, New York Literature. Martino frames the first part of the class around 9/11 because the school year typically starts in September. For Martino, that Tuesday in 2001 he planned on serving as a pollster for a primary election day, allowing him to pocket $50.00 to $75.00 for a few hours of work, a substantial amount of cash for a poor college student. “I was so pumped. That was going to last me a month,” Martino recalls. But, when the planes hurtled into the towers, the world had changed from that day forward.
The class reads the 2009 National Book Award-winner Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, a fictionalized account of Phillipe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk across the uninhabited Twin Towers. The novel charts the day when Petit walked across the towers through the perspectives of four or five different characters - sinners and saints - from different walks of life: a wealthy woman living on the Upper East Side whose son had just died in Vietnam, a priest in the Bronx, art dealers in Chelsea, and prostitutes. The end of the novel culminates in great connections where the characters' lives intersect, serving as a metaphor of how we are trying to balance on this wire called life as the world continues to spin.
McCann’s inspiration for the novel derives from his own 9/11 experience. His father-in-law who was in the towers, walked back to the Upper East Side covered in dust. He took his shoes off outside of the apartment and entered the room where his granddaughter said, “Poppy, you smell like you’re burning.” McCann felt compelled to write his way out of the tragedy to come to terms with what that meant in the aftermath: how the real face of humanity shines through even in despair.
Taking the class into Manhattan was vital to Martino to allow the students to have a more personal connection to the work and the tragedy. “I think the students are so overwhelmed with all types of media these days that I don’t know if the events of 9/11 really resonate with them in the same way. In class, I have them make connections, reflect on their own, whether reading a poem or watching a video or really taking the time to talk about what happened that day. The world we live in now is truly a post 9/11 world - everything from how we travel, to the way we receive information, to our homeland security. I’m reminding them that the world was a truly different place pre-9/11 and out of that great tragedy, the best of humanity came out, especially in New York. I felt proud to be a New Yorker,” Martino said
The KO students first arrived onto the Fordham campus where they ran into Andrew Holland ’19 and then headed to the 9/11 Memorial. They spent three hours at the site with a very affecting tour guide who showed the students a 19-foot section of the WTC antenna which was originally 300 feet, a giant ravaged metal elevator motor, a fire truck, and even McCann’s father-in-law's dust-covered shoes. Following the Memorial, the students toured Washington Square Park, spotted authors’ homes in Greenwich Villiage, and saw the Jefferson Market Library, the High Line, and the Chelsea Market, logging in a total of seven miles.
The class also read Miller’s Death of a Salesman, McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. “I try to diversify the curriculum to include many voices. I think the students like McInerney’s second-person delivery and the character’s internal conflict of the desire to fit in but to just want to sit home at the same time. It’s an interesting comparison with this yuppie who’s working at a publishing house in the ’80s versus the underprivileged kids in Beale Street,” he said.
“This is a really mature class. In taking them downtown, they really got that New York feel. I think their perception of New York is completely different. Now, I believe they understand the allure of the different pockets of the city,” Martino said.