This 9/11, on Shakespeare and remembrance

My Herald-Leader column for this Friday, Sep. 13

Lind Hall, University of Minnesota

Like most Americans, I wake up heavy every 9/11. This year, I also woke up remembering the Shakespeare class I was in that day at the University of Minnesota, and how teachers open us up and change the way we think about the world.

I was 36 years old. And I should not have been in Professor Leyasmeyer’s—Archie’s—class that day. But when I’d decided to go back to college a few years earlier, I’d confidently signed up for Beginning Shakespeare only to drop it after two classes. The teacher, a woman whose name I can’t recall, spoke in fancy literary terms and rattled off so much Shakespearean prose I felt ashamed. I did not belong with those kids almost 20 years my junior, I thought. I wasn’t smart enough to be there.

Of course, I didn’t tell anyone at the time. Not my husband or my kids, who were proud of me for going back to school. And certainly not my mother, who was, at only 56, in end-stage COPD and emphysema, and who busied herself telling every doctor and nurse she saw how smart I was, how proud she was of me. I just quietly dropped the class and moved on. Later. I would try Shakespeare again later.

Which is how I found myself in Lind Hall, in Archie’s classroom, on 9/11.

It was late morning. We didn’t know what was happening yet, but I remember looking up at the sky a lot, at the tops of buildings, as there were many (thankfully false) reports that there could be more attacks and they didn’t know where. I remember what a gorgeous, sunny, Fall day it was. I remember the half-empty parking lot. I remember walking across the campus quad and how eerie it felt with so few students there. But our class? Our class was full.

We were studying King Lear. Archie was elderly then, a year from retirement after four decades teaching, and he began by saying he knew we were all worried, but there was nothing we could do at this moment. “So let’s learn,” he said. “For the next 85 minutes, let’s take turns reading aloud, and let’s find comfort in the beautiful history of language.”

And so, we read.

“The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

“No, I’ll not weep.
I have full cause of weeping, but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I’ll weep.”

In the end, it was Archie who, when it was his turn, simply went silent. He leaned back onto the front of his desk, looked at us, his class, and cried. Then he stood by the door, his worn copy of King Lear in one hand, and he hugged each of us as we left class.

Fast forward 18 years. When I turned on my laptop, I went looking for my teacher, for Archie.

But as happens now, the first thing I saw was a Trump tweet. It was jarring. Minutes before he was set to be on the White House lawn to lead a 9/11 remembrance, he wrote, “If it weren’t for the never ending Fake News about me, and with all that I have done (more than any other President in the first 2 1/2 years!), I would be leading the “Partners” of the LameStream Media by 20 points. Sorry, but true!”

Who finds comfort in language like this? And yet this is what we live with now, what we are punished with daily, even on the 18th anniversary of 9/11.

I found Archie’s obituary. He died October 22, 2016, two weeks before the election. It read, “Born in Latvia in 1935, Leyasmeyer was living in a refugee camp in southern Germany at the end of WWII. At 14, he arrived in the US, knowing no English. At 18, he enrolled at Harvard.” He went on to get his Masters and PhD from Princeton. (You can read the full write up here.)

Archie once wrote, “the richness of human life and cultures on this little blue-white planet, so beautiful, so fragile, floating in the darkness of space.” As I sit here with his poetry on 9/11, as I remember his passion for life and for teaching, I can’t help but wonder what he might have put down on a “merit-based” immigration form.