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Come from Very Far Away

Every time we visit New York, we go to the theater. Yes, we get Broadway shows in Houston – we pay exorbitant prices for Hamilton tickets, too. But the experience in New York is like no other. Theaters in Houston are mega-church-sized venues. You really do get a nosebleed in the upper balcony. In New York, there is an intimacy that enhances the experience in indescribable ways. I may be scrunched into my seat, with my knees up under my earlobes, but wherever I sit, I have a perfect view of the action. This is what Aristotle meant by the communal aspect of theater, that, among its many gifts, drama “can enlarge a community’s vision of its own identity and the realities of its own citizens.”

I don’t think I’ve ever considered Aristotle during my theater experiences. But last fall, when my nieces and I saw Come from Away, the entire audience was transported to September 11th, and, once again, we cried together. I couldn’t imagine a musical about that fateful day, nor did I expect to laugh. But the story was so uplifting that, for a few hours, we were reminded that regular people became unexpected heroes in surreal circumstances.

On September 11th, close to 7000 passengers on more than 200 flights from all over the world were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, a town of 10,000, following the attacks on the United States. Flight crews filled Gander’s hotels, so passengers were taken to schools, fire stations, and church halls. The Canadian military flew in 5,000 cots. Stores donated blankets, coffee machines, and barbecue grills while residents gave passengers food, clothes, showers, toys, and free phones to call home. These unexpected guests stayed in Gander for five days before flights resumed.

I remember when this incredible act of sympathy and philoxenia was broadcast across the globe. A beacon of compassion on the darkest day of our lives. But I never actually visualized it until I saw the play.

Most of this year’s freshman class at my university was born in 2002. For many of them, September 11th is like December 7, 1941 is to me. Another day that will live in infamy. But they don’t think in terms of “before the attack” and “since that day.” For them, taking off their shoes at the airport is normal.

That’s why this story that appeared in the Houston Chronicle on March 4th is so important. First-year teacher Madison Hughes had recently seen Come from Away. She assigned her ESL class at Beck Junior High School in Katy, Texas, a unique project. Thirty-two students, from Venezuela, Mexico, Finland, Guatemala, Norway, and China, wrote letters in English to the people of Gander, “thanking them for their wonderful example of love that they had shown toward people just like themselves in a place completely unfamiliar and new.” The Gander community responded to the letters, and they are on display in Gander Town Hall.

A few months ago, Ms. Hughes sent a Facebook message to Capt. Beverly Bass, American Airlines’ first female captain on a commercial aircraft, who landed in Gander that day, to see if she could get some autographed copies of her book, Me and the Sky: Captain Beverley Bass, Pioneering Pilot. Bass obliged and worked with the production company so the students could attend the musical as guests.

On Tuesday, March 3, the students saw Come from Away at The Hobby Center. Camila Aular, a seventh grader at Beck, appreciated how Gander treated people that they didn’t know at all and that were from many foreign lands. “In Gander, people gave blankets and food that they needed. And they didn’t care where they were from, how they looked like.” She said things are different today and that not everyone is as accepting.

As a further surprise, the students were greeted in class the next afternoon with three special guests: Claude Elliott, Gander’s mayor on 9/11; Beverley Bass, and her husband Tom Stawicki, who supported their family while their mom was away. Elliott said managing the many cultures and languages could be tricky, but somehow they all got through it. “We had people in Gander from 95 countries, so you can imagine…one minute, you’re a Newfoundlander, and the next minute after, you’re a Texan. And then after that, you have someone from Africa, or something like that.”

Writing assignments are just that – assignments. For the most part, students would rather have root canal without novocaine than describe “How I spent my summer vacation.” But this assignment, these simple thank-you notes to strangers, gave these students a much deeper understanding of kindness toward and acceptance of others. This is a lesson we should already know. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a tragedy to remind us.

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