Tuesday morning in early September was still early enough in the year that there were few routines established in my second period AP Literature class. It was only the third week of classes, and the senioritis hadn’t had time to take hold. Yet, all eighteen of us in the class had already come to expect that Shawn Kennedy would arrive at least five minutes late. That day was no different. Ms. Malin, our sage-like, cynical teacher (who famously used to threaten to cut off your ear with a rusty razor blade if you used poor grammar) rolled her eyes when the already closed classroom door opened and Shawn bounded in with headphones still in, books spilling out of his satchel on the way to his desk in the middle of the room.
“I heard in the car on the way here that an airplane crashed into a building in New York City”, he said. He walked over to the television in the corner of the room and turned it on without permission, though no one objected, including Ms. Malin. There on the screen was the breaking news chyron imposed on top of helicopter footage of smoke billowing out of one of the World Trade Center towers. We all thought it must have been a Cessna or ultralight aircraft until we saw the second plane hit. By that point every classroom had turned on their television to watch. The bell rang and no one moved. Another bell and still everyone remained in their seats. Finally, the principal came on the loudspeaker and instructed everyone to go to their fifth period class, the rest of the day needed to return to normal.
The hallway was alive with conversation during the passing time. Shawn and I talked together as we walked to our next class together, choir, where we sat next to each other. All eighty of us crammed into a space shared with the concert band, twenty years worth of ensemble photos and trophies and plaques adorning every available inch of wall space. Surrounded by the history of singers who had come before us and achieved before us, the message was one of stability and tradition, reminding us what we were a part of.
Our choir director, Mr. Gulsvig, came into the room, and the conversation stopped. Gulsvig looks like a discount Ben Stein, over six feet, barrel-chested, wearing a tan sweater vest and khakis with strap-on sandals and socks. A wonderful human being, his default expression was a mix of concern and indigestion. He stood in front of the class, at the podium.
“We will have a normal rehearsal today,” he said, calmly. “We will continue practicing our music. We will not talk about it or ask questions or watch television. We will do what we always do.” Even though I wasn’t convinced it was the right thing to do at the time (actually, I was outright mad about it), it was a symbol of how choral music and song could act as a stabilizing influence in a world turned upside down.
That was the first time where singing and tragedy intersected in my life. That choir would travel to New York that March and sing at Ground Zero, where we would sing Daniel Gawthrop’s Sing Me to Heaven for a group of police officers. It was a profoundly impactful moment.
Four years later I was a senior in college. It was another transformative year in a lot of ways. It was the first time I sang Stephen Paulus’s Pilgrims’ Hymn. Our conductor, Craig Arnold (who was living and working in Manhattan at the time of the attack), shared how the text had particular meaning for him, as the vision of “darkness sealing us in” reminded him of the people stuck underneath the rubble of the trade towers for days, praying and hoping for rescue while those above did everything to get to them before it was too late.
PILGRIMS’ HYMN by Michael Dennis Browne
Even before we call on Your name
To ask You, O God,
When we seek for the words to glorify You,
You hear our prayer;
Unceasing love, O unceasing love,
Surpassing all we know.
Glory to the father,
and to the Son,
And to the Holy Spirit.
Even with darkness sealing us in,
We breathe Your name,
And through all the days that follow so fast,
We trust in You;
Endless Your grace, O endless Your grace,
Beyond all mortal dream.
Both now and forever,
And unto ages and ages,
Four years after that, the president of that choir, Ben Larson, died in the night after being buried underneath a pile of rubble in the Haiti earthquake of 2010. His family said that he sang hymns with them late into the night before he finally stopped singing. When I heard the news the words of that song suddenly appeared and hung over me for days. So powerful are the connections between visual and aural memories and sensations.
There have been a handful of other moments in my career where song has been the salve that eases the sting of tragedy: an assembly of current and former choir students after the sudden death of a former student, a candlelight vigil of area high school choirs to honor the victims of the Newtown massacre, numerous church services marking the passing of friends and colleagues and family. Most recently, I was reacquainted with Pilgrims’ Hymn at my church choir, a congregation whose most visible mission is to welcome all people, especially members of the LGBTQ community.
I find on days like this that I return to these moments and the songs that accompany them. I am haunted by song. It hangs over me like clouds, bringing life and fantasy and tenderness and storm. I am transported back to my high school choir room and all of those faces in all of those photos on the wall, and all of the love that was shared in that place. And I understand what Mr. Gulsvig was getting at when he said that we should keep doing what had always been done in that room: Love through the art of song. Even if no one else feels it, even if no else can hear. It makes a difference that stretches into today for me, and I like to think it has for others as well.
So tomorrow I am going to keep singing.