Fifteen years ago today, Dr. Betsy Alderman, professor emerita at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, was teaching a news media writing class. It was a normal Tuesday morning.
Around 8:45, everything changed.
"A colleague ran down the hallway and said a plane had hit the World Trade Center," Alderman said.
Her 15 or so students were sitting around desks shaped like a horseshoe in room 203 inside Frist Hall. Off to the side, a big, blocky TV was strapped to a roller cart; Alderman immediately pushed it to the front, turned it on. As Katie Couric and Matt Lauer tried to describe what felt like the collapse of the world — until then, the news cycle was full of Chandra Levy and summer shark attacks — the class of UTC students stared in shock.
"Mouths agape, dead silence," said Heather Pelley, a sophomore in Alderman's class. "Watching the world you know basically crumble."
Then the second plane hit.
"A classwide gasp," said David Martin, also a sophomore. "Then silence as minds raced to process the explosion."
On the TV screen, New Yorkers began jumping out of the windows of the flaming, crumbling World Trade Center. Is this what Pearl Harbor felt like, one student wondered?
"Time seemed to stop," said sophomore Ron Patterson.
Several students had cellphones; shakily, they called home, then passed the phones around so others could do the same. One student called her mom in Oak Ridge, who told her to stay in Chattanooga. It was safer here. Fewer nuclear targets.
Realizing the growing terror, Alderman began speaking to her students.
"I encouraged them to not shut down," she said. "Reach out to family, friends, clergy, anyone."
Alderman, 58, has been teaching at UTC for 22 years, and exists as one of the most respected faculty members around. She teaches courses in communications, with one underlying theme: connection.
"I never had children of my own, by choice," she said. "My students at UTC became my kids, in so many ways."
As New York City burned, Alderman instinctively and maternally knew her students needed direct care and guidance. She became their first responder.
"I knew that those students, at age 19, 20, 21, would not be able to process what had happened. I couldn't, either. But I felt that we all shared a very common bond of humanity watching as so many, many people suffer and trying in vain, often, to save others," she said.
The rest of the day was a blur: a mix of acute clarity and confusion. (One student remembers exactly where she was sitting when the towers fell, but not how she got home that afternoon.) There was the terror-sense that a new American story was being written, but no knowledge of the hand writing it, or the plot, or how it all ends.
"Chaos, confusion, fear, love, hate," said Patterson. "Sympathy, destruction, reverence."
It seems so long ago — not just 15 years, but 15 Americas ago. Before shoe bombers or 3.4 oz. of carry-on liquids or Al-Zarqawi or black ISIS flags or the zero-dark-thirty raid on bin Laden.
That 9/11 morning became an unforgettable part of us.
"More than any other class I took at UTC, I remember my classmates from that class," said Pelley.
Alderman's students went on to graduate into a post 9/11 world. Pelley joined the Air Force, then embarked on a career at Oracle. Patterson works as a research coordinator, while also shooting documentaries. Martin, well-known in the communications and PR world, writes a column for this newspaper. Others became grad students, leaders, teachers, parents.
A few years after the terror attacks, Alderman began calling and emailing her 9/11 students.
Let's get together for lunch, she wrote.
On the anniversary of 9/11.
For the last 10 years or so, students have reunited in early September over a meal. Sometimes it's just two or three. Sometimes the table is packed.
Friday, they met for lunch at Clyde's on Main. Patterson was there. Martin, too. Pelley flew in from Texas. One student took the day off from her job in Johnson City.
"I will never forget Dr. Alderman as being the face of wisdom, compassion, and stability as we experienced the worst tragedy on American soil of my lifetime," said Pelley.
"I love you guys," Alderman told them on Friday.
"We can only hope and pray," one student answered, "that our children have the opportunity to grow up in a world as loved and adored by their teachers and professors as we have been by you."
Alderman's is the truest post-9/11 lesson.
In the face of terror, she taught community.
In response to fear, she taught love.
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.