Rapid Response, Part 2

High schoolers react to the September 11 attack.

Ernest Hemingway defined "courage" as "grace under pressure." I've always found that line to be incredibly perceptive, and more than a little bit ironic, considering that, when things started going downhill for Papa Hemingway, he decided to have lunch at the south end of a shotgun.

It was interesting, to say the least, to see the way different people reacted to the horrible images and the numbing impact of what happened last week. Within an hour of the World Trade Center crashes, people were flooding into the Tucson Red Cross to give blood, while in Indiana, some gas stations were suddenly charging $5 a gallon for gasoline. Let's hope that the few hundred dollars they squeezed out of panicked souls during that terrible time goes to buy something really nice. Like a conscience.

I wrote a column about it that afternoon and when it ran last week, I got a lot of e-mail feedback. One woman, in particular, was outraged that I would "resort to macho posturing" and then she closed by stating that "countries are not like people."

Well, I respectfully disagree. Countries consist of people and they are exactly like people. I did indeed grow up in a rough place, one with too much violence, too much blood and too much death. But I found out early on that the only ones who didn't fight were those whom everybody else recognized as being too tough to mess with.

And I'm sorry, but this is what America must do right now. Oddly enough, all of the big countries in the world are aware of this and they either accept our genuine offer of friendship or they steer clear of us. Our mission now is to impress this upon all the little pissants out there who haven't yet got the message.

My son, Alexander, is a sweet-hearted kid who's probably a little bit too smart for his own good. The kid's got an attention span measured in ABDoseconds, an infinitesimally small period of time invented for him and named for his initials because a nanosecond was way too long.

The day after the attacks, I took Alexander to school and saw his yearbook-class advisor. The man stopped me and told me that while a lot of kids were crying and wandering around in a daze, Alexander walked into the class and asked for the class tape recorder so that he could go out and get student reactions. He then suggested that a page in the yearbook be set aside for the tragedy that will surely shape students' lives over the next year.

When the man stopped talking, I replied, "Alexander? Tall, light-skinned Hispanic kid? Big shoulders, good hair, braces? We talkin' about the same kid?"

He assured me that we were and a shudder ran through me. Later that day, when I went to pick him up after football practice, I saw some of the kids I've coached in basketball over the years. I asked them their reaction and feelings. What follows is a sampling of the responses Alexander and I got independently.

Jeff, a sophomore, said, "A lot of people got freaked out when they heard that Tucson Mall closed, because Amphi's pretty close to the mall. I just wonder what causes people to hate us so much that they would want to do something like this. It had to have taken lots of planning and money, plus you have to have people willing to kill themselves when they crash into the buildings. That's crazy."

Shawn, a senior, said, "I was born in New York City. I've been in those buildings. It's hard to imagine the skyline being different. It's weird."

Carlhey, a junior who wants to work in the film industry after college, said, "It's so strange. I know these are horrible tragedies, but I keep comparing them in my mind to how (similar things) look in the movies. There was a TV show not long ago called 7 Days where a terrorist crashed a private plane into the White House and killed the president, and then this secret agent had to go back in time seven days to change history. They say they want things to get back to normal, but do you think Hollywood will go back to making movies about stuff like that? Will people want to see movies about terrorism and death after watching the real thing on TV?"

Katie, a junior, said, "I just flew back to New York right before school started. I wonder if I'll feel weird next time I get on a plane."

Theresa, a senior, said, "I went into my calculus class and we did calculus. I was so relieved. Some teachers want to talk about feelings. I really don't think that helps. They think that talking about it makes you get rid of some of the pressure, but, for once, I was really happy to be doing school work in school."

When we got home that afternoon, Alexander called a friend of his who attends a different school and whose parents came here from Iran. His friend said that people at school had been cool, but that he felt some eyes on him when he and his father stopped at a grocery store to buy something for dinner. Alexander told him to hang in there, but then added, sadly, that he should watch his back, at least for a while.

Meanwhile, I put out our flag. We bought it when the kids were born as a small part of our overall plan to bring them up right. We always fly it on national holidays. As I was putting it up, a young guy from down the street was walking by on his way to the mailbox. He said, "Oh, you got a flag. I want to get one. Where'd you get it?"

I said, "Oh, I don't know. We've always had it."

His face scrunched up and he said, "Really? Why?"