(Foreword by Wanda M. Holland Greene)
It is hard for me to believe that not a single student at my school, The Hamlin School, was alive on September 11, 2001. The swift passage of time is altogether stunning; it strikes me deeply that a fresh memory for me is American history for our students and for many of our young teachers. I am a native New Yorker who was living and working in Boston on that sun-bright Tuesday morning. I will never forget the beauty within the horror of that day; courage and generosity billowed from people just like the smoke from the burning towers. A man I had been dating as well as several parents of former students perished that day.
My former students remind me of the power of resilience and the importance of seeing light in the midst of darkness. I spent hours on my living room couch a few weeks ago, catching up with the extraordinary Jasmine Victoria, an alumna of The Chapin School (also my alma mater and former employer), whose beautiful mother died while at work in Tower One. I am in awe of Jasmine’s ferocity, clearly evident in her ability to reinvent herself and protect her privacy from gawkers eager to exploit her grief. And then there is the amazing Lyla Hinkle, an alumna of The Hamlin School (where I am in year ten as Head of School), who recently shared her poignant writing with me. Unlike Jasmine, a college student on 9/11, Lyla was a baby traveling with her parents on a Lufthansa flight. Lyla is now a junior at St. Ignatius College Preparatory School in San Francisco, and her quiet strength and open heart make me proud.
Here is Lyla’s baby story in her own words.
Everyone has a childhood story that their parents tell over and over again. My story takes place in Gander, Canada on 9/11 when my parents and I were stranded with 7,000 others. We were the Come From Away families, celebrated in the Tony Award winning musical.
This summer I was able to appreciate my parents’ lullaby-like story when I not only saw Come From Away (www.comefromaway.com) but also met with the cast and the creative team. My teacher Mr. Devine arranged the backstage visit through one of his former Saint Ignatius drama students Francis Jue, a close friend of the producer.
In just 100 minutes without an intermission, the twelve actors captured a moment I lived through sixteen years ago — the kindness and compassion the people of Gander exhibited to “Come From Aways” (a term used for people not from Newfoundland) when they opened up their town to us.
As David Hein and Irene Sankoff, the Tony Award winning writers of Come From Away explained, Newfoundlanders have a very strong sense of community and hospitality. Hein related the Gander belief that “if a stranger comes to your door and says they need help, you let them in and give them whatever they need because the next day it could be you.”
The writers and creative team replicated this tightly-knit community on stage by using the Newfoundland tradition of telling stories and singing songs. During cold storms, Newfoundlanders “get together and bring over instruments, and everyone sings and tell stories….that’s how you stay warm and get through the winters.”
Hein and Sankoff spent hundreds of hours interviewing the residents of Gander as well as the stranded survivors who returned to Gander on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The author and composer managed to recreate the environment by not having an intermission. Hein explained, “The plane people and the people of Gander didn’t get a break, so why should the audience?”
Ironically, despite the musical’s emotional journey, the audience, actors, and band often don’t want to leave when the musical ends. After the band played its final note, most audience members remained standing, wishing to stay in Newfoundland just a little longer. This reaction mirrored that of the plane people in 2001, for despite being in the midst of a tragedy, nobody wanted to leave Gander because, according to my parents, everyone made us feel safe and at home.
The musical starts when the citizens find out about the World Trade Center attacks and realize that the plane people will be grounded in Gander. The enormity of the situation–how to house, feed, and clothe 7,000 passengers– quickly sinks in. In the powerful song “Blankets and Bedding,” Hein and Sankoff perfectly capture how extraordinary their effort was.
During the show, I was able to see the Ignatian ideal of being men and women with and for others. Seeing Come From Away, I grasped the gift I had been given as a baby. The people of Gander stood with us as we coped with the awful reality of 9/11, and they grieved alongside us. They also provided for us, even though they knew we could never repay them. Beulah Davis realized that there were babies on the plane and immediately gathered as many baby clothes, formula, and toys as she could find.
This is where my story starts. My parents and I landed in Gander around 11:30 a.m. on September 11th — one of 38 stranded international flights. These jumbo jet planes, including our Lufthansa plane, landed one after another as U.S. airspace was closed. Planes sat on the tarmac for 10-28 hours while a massive security check was underway.
My parents and I were on our plane for about 10 hours. My parents patiently played with me, reading the same book over and over, but nobody could contact friends and family because most people didn’t have cell phones. Finally, we deplaned and went through intense security, then were shuttled in the dark to a local high school, Gander Collegiate.
The people of Gander delivered food, set up rows of cots in classrooms, and filled bookshelves with diapers, rattles, toys, and formula. In addition, they set up telephone booths so people could call their friends and family. They also introduced the plane people to Newfoundland culture. As described by the Mayor (played by Joel Hatch) in the song “Screech In,” “there’s a solemn, old tradition…to transition from a come from away to be a Newfoundlander.” To perform this tradition, the townspeople invited the plane people down to a local bar. The ritual consists of taking a shot of Screech (a very strong type of rum) and kissing a traditional Newfoundland cod. In the musical, various people step forward and become honorary Newfoundlanders.
Eventually, my family went and stayed with Paula and Greg King, an air traffic controller. I spoke to them after I saw the musical. They recalled going down to the school each day to see if anyone needed a shower, and “we brought a lot of people back to our house to shower, but we really hit it off with your parents and asked them to stay.”
After seeing Come From Away, I understood why my parents told me about the selfless, generous actions of the people of the town of Gander. I am no longer a baby, and I fully grasp the horror and tragedy of that day. But the gift I received from my parents is that I am also able to focus on the beauty of 9/11 and see it as a day when love and compassion of people from across the world came together as one.