In August 2001, my family and I visited the Statue of Liberty. It was a deeply influential day in my life, mostly because I was very interested in Americana at that point in my life. History interested me, and the symbols of America (such as they were in the eyes of a white boy) were sacred. Enjoying the museum, visiting the immigration facilities on Ellis Island, going up to the pedestal – all of them took on significant import. I felt good about the country on that day, as odd as that must seem; a kid going into fifth grade had warm fuzzies about the country, maybe for the first time, that weren’t related to the Olympics or a history book or a movie. On that day, I internalized a kind of moonshine, and it sustained my unquestioned opinions for a year or so.
From the pedestal, you can see New York City pretty clearly. (I have no doubt that you’d get a better view from the crown, but there’s a shade too much acrophobia in my family, to say nothing of more than a little displeasure with long lines.) It was a sunny day, and not many clouds; visibility was good. All of the skyscrapers of Manhattan were there. I remember having the World Trade Center pointed out to me. A month later, those skyscrapers, and more buildings on the ground, and thousands of people, were gone. The cost of September 11th is unaccountable. Estimations of money lost or people killed or city blocks destroyed and rebuilt can only be so useful, for the deaths of thousands of soldiers and civilians in the Middle East and the destruction of property and livelihood and hope must be taken into account as well, even into the future. As long as we read the date “September 11th” and shiver first, the toll is still being run. Commemorations, from Freedom Tower to United 93 to commercials during football games to the many thousands of speeches given, are well-meaning (I think). They are empty not because the sentiment or the emotion is somehow wrong or cynical, but because the vessel we place our thoughts into is itself cracked and unable to keep the substance. The time for a Ground Zero Address or a Pentagon Address has come and gone.
The best 9/11 commemoration that I can think of is not oratory from a politician, nor is it a film, nor is it a building or sculpture. It’s an episode of a children’s television show. “April 9th,” the season finale of the seventh season of Arthur, aired in spring 2002. Without mentioning 9/11, terrorism, or, indeed, any current event from the six or seven frightening months preceding the episode, the show makes a much more meaningful tribute than many of the pieces which show planes flying into buildings, or fire, or people jumping from hundreds of feet up, or shots of the Statue of Liberty, or stirring music, or Nicolas Cage, or George W. Bush.
Faulty wiring causes a fire in Lakewood Elementary. Everyone gets out safely, though there are casualties: Mr. Morris, the spacey school janitor, breaks his leg; Arthur’s dad is one of the last people out, much to Arthur’s consternation; Sue Ellen’s journal, which she had been working on for years, is destroyed. The kids go to Mighty Mountain Elementary for a few weeks, frazzled but largely in good spirits. (Francine can’t believe that those kids even beat the Lakewood bunch at thumb-wrestling.) Binky pulls the fire alarm at Mighty Mountain for a reason that he can’t quite explain, and the principals of the two schools give him community service with Francine’s dad, a sanitation worker, instead of a suspension. Ultimately, everyone goes back to Lakewood after it’s fixed up; within a month, the memories of the Fire have changed from straight purple to purple and blue, or even, in a couple cases, purple and gold.
Sue Ellen, writing in her journal before she goes to school, notes that it’s a normal, beautiful day. It’s just April 9th, a day not so different from April 8th or April 10th. After the fire – and after the loss of her journal – she finds it difficult to cope. She realized as the fire alarm was going off that her bag with the journal in it was in the classroom, but Mr. Ratburn hustles her out of the room before she can go back to get it. A firefighter takes a chair and her backpack, both clearly burned, out of the school, and a hose is trained on them. Paper flies. Sue Ellen sobs into her parents’ arms. Muffy, from her position of means, tries her best to cheer Sue Ellen up. She doesn’t understand that that journal held meaning for Sue Ellen, but she genuinely seems interested in helping. Sue Ellen rejects the first journal Muffy tries to give her, but when Muffy pushes a new one, bound in “imitation suede” and bearing Sue Ellen’s name on it, Sue Ellen has the grace to accept it. However, she doesn’t have the words to put into it. For days, her only entries are: “I have nothing to say.” Tragedy, for Sue Ellen, has taken the words out of her, making her speechless. Most of her classmates have something to say about the Fire, even if they don’t want to communicate. The double-episode ends with Sue Ellen’s newest journal entry, written a month after April 9th, and strong in the belief that she and her friends can pull through anything. The joy in that is not the trite statement that unity is strength, for unity isn’t strength any more than ignorance is. It’s a relief to find that Sue Ellen finally has something to say, and that the words have not, in the end, been ripped from her. It’s through a mural that she designs and plans and implements on the back wall of Lakewood, which pictures the school community, that she finds her first voice before going back to her journal. This is the part of the episode which speaks about itself: art is cathartic. I disagree a little; it seems to me that Sue Ellen choosing to take action and recreating herself as an agent is far more useful than the fact of a mural, but in either case, Sue Ellen breaks out of her malaise. (It’s also nice to see her as the beginning and end of the two-parter; in season 1, Sue Ellen and Arthur probably would have switched roles, but in season 7, the showrunners are confident enough in their “ensemble cast,” such as it is, to put Sue Ellen in this spot.)
Binky, who I was going to write a piece about until I was reminded of this episode, is of two minds for most of the episode. Without going into detail which would make the Binky arc redundant, Binky is almost always of two minds. He is the school bully – at one point in the episode, he scares off some kids bullying George, heroically crying, “You can’t pick on George! He’s in my class! Only I can pick on him!” before taking George’s snack. He’s also as gentle a person as there is at Lakewood; he is a talented musician and dancer, a budding naturalist who is horrified by dead specimens, and desperate to please his mother. His two minds are present again in “April 9th.” He is the only student to actually see the fire itself, which he pretends, in front of the others, didn’t faze him. In actuality, he can’t even watch fire on television without running from the room. He pulls the fire alarm on the first day at Mighty Mountain, tracking how quickly the fire trucks come and noting how scared the Mighty Mountain kids got. Binky is desperate to prove to himself that he’s tougher than the other kids who get scared by events like the Fire, or maybe he’s attempting to reassure himself that anyone else would be afraid. In either case, he can’t even go into Lakewood on his first day back without seeing smoke billow from the teachers’ lounge. It takes some amateur counseling from Francine’s dad to get Binky to a place where he isn’t ashamed of his fear any longer. And his reaction to a stimulus that reminds him of what he is afraid of isn’t, I think, limited just to children. I got a little nervous about any plane flying overhead during my fifth grade year (no small thing when one lives within half an hour of a major international airport), but I’m sure adults see their fears augmented by the signal phrases which remind them of trauma. As a boy, I focused on airplanes. Some adults focused on Muslims. My fear has been managed – I can get onto a passenger plane now without the slightest concern. The adults who see a Muslim, whether they are Christian or Jewish or anti-theist, and still panic need the kind of counseling from a wiser person that Francine’s dad suggests.
Buster, tardy little creature that he is, sleeps through his alarm and runs up to school after the fire trucks have left. Francine fills him in on the Fire and Buster’s first reaction (“It’s not fair!”) is not a statement about “How could this have happened to our school?” but a statement of “This was the biggest event of the year and I slept right through it!” Buster, as he is so wont to do, tries to make himself part of the event, telling ludicrous stories about the Fire that only serve to alienate him further. His mother, after a conversation where Buster asks her why he doesn’t feel the same way as the other kids did after the Fire, gets him to deliver a basket of flowers to Mr. Morris, the school janitor whose leg was broken. Buster and Mr. Morris immediately hit it off – both are asthmatic, both love chocolate, and both are certain that aliens contact humans frequently. Mr. Morris, who is of a certain age and recognizes that his leg will probably never heal properly, retires from his job and prepares to move out to New Mexico to be with his daughter; when he leaves Elwood City, that is the closest thing that the Fire does to killing someone. Buster, who inherits Mr. Morris’ accordion (“Beatrice”), comes to understand that the Fire is more than fodder for self-promoting stories based on his interaction with a person who was victimized by it. What is most impressive about this storyline is not that Buster comes to know someone with that resume, but that he has to find that person. There is a subtle argument being made that the people who were not directly involved in tragedy yet are connected by community to those hurt most – maybe people in California or Texas or Florida in 2001 – have a responsibility to seek out and become part of the community again. That sentiment is echoed in Sue Ellen’s closing journal entry as well.
The most affective plot of the bunch involves Arthur and his father. On the morning of April 9th, David Read comes downstairs in his pajamas, looks at the calendar, and panics: he’s supposed to be catering a breakfast at Lakewood Elementary. He is the last man out of the school while it’s on fire, which does not settle well with Arthur; he has to be restrained by a firefighter to make sure he doesn’t go back into the building to look for him. Arthur shows some concern about the location of his dad’s next catering job (he is relieved, before a squid-starring nightmare, to find out that it’s at an aquarium), and his dad tries to tell him that “schools are safe places.” (This episode was made three years after Columbine, but hearing someone say that about schools after Sandy Hook literally made my skin crawl.) On April 16th, a similar scene unfolds; Arthur’s dad comes downstairs, realizes he’s supposed to be catering an event, and rushes out of the room. Perhaps caught by the similarity, Arthur tries to fake an illness so his dad will stay home. Arthur’s dad, who was not born yesterday, recounts a story in which he, as a child, was scared every time his mother (Arthur’s Grandma Thora) would drive a car after a car accident until he realized that things tend to work out more than not. “It’s my job to worry about you, Arthur,” he says, “not the other way around.”
One of the things that I’ve come to admire about Arthur is that it does not frequently turn adults into villains. In the vast number of cases, adults are benevolent and wise, kindly and just. And the children turn to adults to have their fears assuaged or their concerns heard. Buster’s mother asks him to visit Mr. Morris, who is the major instrument in helping Buster understand his connection to the Fire. Mr. Haney, the school principal, is even more involved than Mr. Ratburn in this episode. (Mr. Ratburn is an avatar of circumspection so frequently that his presence would be almost superfluous.) Not only does Mr. Haney help Sue Ellen realize her mural, but he also is the one in charge of effective (and transformational) discipline for Binky’s misdeed. And when Binky does his community service, he gets significant help in coping from Francine’s dad. Arthur’s dad is the only parent who is personally involved in helping his own child manage his or her concern with the Fire, but one is enough: he relates Arthur’s experience with his own and makes Arthur feel like he isn’t alone without instilling more fear in his son. Whether or not children should trust adults so implicitly is its own question, but in Arthur’s world, the adults mean to take responsibility for the big things so that the kids can be in charge of their own sector: making friends, doing schoolwork, exploring personal interests, learning to not kill siblings, etc. It’s a nice thought: Arthur and his friends don’t live in Utopia, but they do live in Narnia.
There may still be a few people reading this wondering how this can be such a glorious 9/11 tribute if it doesn’t mention the event at all? My response is that the point of a tribute or commemoration or dedication is to help people manage their grief. This is why I will be largely impassive about whatever 9/11 tributes or thinkpieces or whatever else that shows up on 9/11 this year; it’s fourteen years on, and if your deep grief hasn’t healed, then you should already have begun seeking professional help. Timetables for psychological wellness are more conventional wisdom than fact, but we cannot live well – for more than a decade – while operating with deep and confounding grief. Two Minutes Grief once a year does not lead to renewal. “April 9th” seems to understand that less than a year out from the original event: that we can’t let our pain fester, but that we must always work through it in some way, no matter how small.