Pennies, Hijacking, Jenga and September 11

This past Monday, September 11, I got a group email from my previous life at Liberty House.  The group, composed of folks from around New Hampshire who work with homeless veterans, is meeting next week, and this email announced date, time, place, etc.  Because the first veterans’ writers’ retreat begins a week from Friday, and space is still available, it made sense for me to send a flyer to each of the members.  I may not be good at marketing, but I can be diligent, so I hit “reply all” at the bottom and needed to have some kind of cover message over the flyer I was sending out.  I began, “Hi Everyone, Sorry for hijacking this email thread. . .”

Hijacking.  HIJACKING!  What kind of insensitive jerk uses the word “hijacking” on the anniversary of a national tragedy?

The same kind of idiot who has a funniest September 11 story.  Do you want to hear it?  No?

Last year, my oldest daughter, Becca, who is wise and smart and gifted and very politically sensitive, was working part-time in a pub that offered board games and cards as a hook to get folks to stay longer and enjoy the food and drinks being sold.  The idea is folks who are engaged in a game of Clue or Trivial Pursuit might not notice the price of a brisket sandwich or a third beer.  On September 11, Becca arrived at work with a large black handkerchief and placed it over the Jenga game, saying,

“The falling towers might be a trigger for some people.”

That’s the funniest September 11 story I know.

To demonstrate I am not a complete monster, I’ll tell you a personal and touching September 11 story, one which kept me from, perhaps, changing the course of individual lives in a small New Hampshire town.

Let me go back to August, 2001, when my daughters were nine, seven and four at the time, all three strong believers in the power of face up pennies.  That is, from the childhood rhyme “Find a penny, pick it up and all the day you’ll have good luck,” they’d developed a practical animist theology that involved collecting pennies and placing them face up on the sidewalk in front of a church beside our house.  On Sunday mornings, they’d spy on churchgoers, watching to see who picked up a penny and had therefore improved his or her luck for the day.  It was charming, and perhaps the only known example of the phrase “practical theology.”

I’d been hired to start a small alternative high school program (called K-SOFA, for reasons too distracting to go into now) in Goffstown, and was on the prowl for non-academic activities that could be used for instruction in skills.  I thought of the girls, and their belief in pennies, and throughout August I gathered up every newspaper clipping and online police report from Goffstown.  My idea was the alternative students would each be given 25 pennies to place face up throughout town.  They’d record the placement, and we’d, as a group, visit the “luck rations” daily, recording where pennies had been picked up and charting the data over time.  For a completely meaningless activity, it offered a lot of opportunities for learning about record-keeping, statistics, measures of central tendency and use of the scientific method—all of which were part of the curriculum.

My secret goal was to test the hypothesis of my daughters’ practical theology: luck would increase in the larger population as a result of the infusion of face-up pennies.  My plan was to continue gathering social information (arrests, car accidents, domestic disturbances, etc.) for the month of September 2001, and compare it to the August stats.  If I found a significant change, I would have discovered a way to improve the world that would cost just pennies a day!

The school year began September 4 that year, and the first week was given over to “getting-to-know-you” activities, figuring out students’ writing, reading and math skills, and developing as a group.  On Monday, September 10, K-SOFA staff and students wandered the streets, parks and alleys of Goffstown, setting pennies down face up and dutifully recording who had placed pennies where.  My grand plan was beginning to unfold.

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, that same group left K-SOFA (across from Sully’s, if anyone is setting up tours) and went out to gather our first data set.  Before we got to our first drop-off, I got a phone call from the main high school saying something about a major plane crash in New York, and suggesting I bring my band of scientists back to K-SOFA.  From there, we went back to the high school to watch the horror that was 9/11/01.  Self-centered and egotistical as it is, I became convinced that I shouldn’t meddle with fate any more.  I pulled the plug on the experiment, although even today I place pennies face up for strangers to find.

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