She heard the news from a television in Hinsdale Hall, just before her First-Year Colloquium class, taught by management and communication professor Gail Ambuske.
“People were talking about a plane hitting a building in New York,” Cunningham said. “It was kind of fuzzy in terms of whether it was an accident.”
That uncertainty remained for much of the morning class. Once it was confirmed that a second plane had hit, Ambuske remembers silence throughout the class.
“We all sort of sat there in stunned silence,” Ambuske said. “I said to the class, ‘I’m not sure what’s going on,’ but the best response was to continue as much as possible. We didn’t know how severe it was. It wasn’t until we all left class that we realized it.”
Cunningham’s first thought was worry: Her mother was on a plane to New York that morning, and she had received several fuzzy voicemails from her. She shared her fears with Ambuske, who showed up at Cunningham’s dorm later that night to make sure everything was okay.
Fortunately, by then Cunningham had learned that her mother landed safely in Nantucket, Mass., and the voicemails were fuzzy because of the sheer volume of calls being made.
“The faculty, the staff, the students were really supportive,” Cunningham said. “I knew that Hiram was a wonderful place, but when Gail showed up in my dorm to make sure mom was okay, that was really telling.”
Teaching a New Generation
Ten years later, the student and professor whose lives crossed that day, are now colleagues at Hiram College. This year, Cunningham is teaching a First-Year Colloquium course titled “A Decade Later,” examining memories and media that have come of that day.
The students in her class are the same age that Cunningham was at the time of the attacks. But when showing the documentary “102 Minutes that Changed America,” she said it became clear that today’s students are much more aware of the country’s vulnerability than she and her classmates were at the time.
They questioned why first responders entered a building that would surely collapse in due time and why people stopped to look instead of running away.
“They don’t realize that in the moment, that’s just what you did,” she said. “Now that everything’s changed, I’m not sure that they can get their head around the fact (that) it didn’t used to be this way. We didn’t think about running away, and that the first responders would get blown up.”
In addition to attitudes, both Ambuske and Cunningham note that kind of communication that happens during a crisis has changed as well. In 2001, students learned the news by word of mouth and huddling around dorm room televisions.
“(Today) we would certainly find out more quickly,” Ambuske said, naming text messages and social media as faster ways of communication. “I don’t think we would respond any differently, (but) it would be a more rapid response.”
Cunningham said she also expects such a tragedy would result in more public grieving today.
“I look at things like grieving on Facebook,” she said. “If someone looses a dog or loved one, there’s a more public sharing of emotion.”
Life Goes On
Classes were never cancelled at Hiram following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
But with the attacks came the college’s first teach-in, an event that now occurs annually. That first teach-in drew a mostly faculty crowd, but some students attended as well, to learn about the events and their impact, from professors in a variety of fields.
“Looking back, what I wouldn’t give to go back to September 10, 2001,” Cunningham said. “We have these moments, (where) we just need to pause and feel the moment. I so wish that on September 10 of ’01, I would have stopped and just remembered something from it. I have no memory of the day before the world changed.”