09/06/2011 05:02 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2011

College Writing About 9/11: "Sometimes a Mistake Becomes an Opportunity. Explain."

"Welcome to class, please take out a piece of paper and put your name on it. Please answer the following question on the board:"

Sometimes a mistake becomes an opportunity. Explain.

For over a decade I have used this vague, but surprisingly evocative one-time SAT II prompt to start some of my college courses in ethics and writing. My intent is certainly not to frighten my students on the first day of class, but rather to promote a lively opening discussion that also allows me initial insight into students' ideas and writing abilities.

Originally this question was the mainstay of college writing placement exams at a university where I taught, and I served as one of the faculty members, who evaluated student responses.

Before 9/11 the responses to this question on writing placement exams generally fell into three categories.

1) The discovery of North America was a mistake that became an opportunity.
2) I mistakenly applied to this university intending another, but it became an opportunity.
3) Other.

The "other" category ranged widely from comical tales of mistakes in games of "Texas hold 'em" to bracing narratives about tragedy, suffering, and ultimate survival. Despite such great variety, essays in this "other" category generally displayed a common use of the pathos appeal, that is, emotionally moving rhetoric. Many student narratives brought the readers to tears.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the content of the essays dramatically changed. In the immediate aftermath, Wednesday September 12 and Thursday September 13, 2001 also happened to be writing placement days that year, and students wrote almost exclusively about 9/11.

Faced with a mountain of essays on the twin towers two days after the mighty World Trade Center crumbled in smoke and flames, my colleagues and I struggled to understand how one could possibly think of "mistakes" and "opportunities" when trying to grasp the horrific event that had just occurred. Surely, in this moment of national emergency, the essay prompt itself was irrelevant. The students simply felt compelled to write about the unfolding tragedy before their eyes.

But every year since 9/11, the events of that date have become a separate category to the prompt "Sometimes a mistake becomes an opportunity. Explain." In 2002 and 2003 roughly half the essays addressed the topic. The topic declined somewhat in subsequent years but continued enough to occupy its own category.

Then a few years ago, my university revised its writing placement process, and I no longer marked such essays in groups with my colleagues. But fascinated with the responses, I continued to use the prompt as an in-class writing for the first day of class in some of my courses. The frequency of 9/11 persisted, but failed to dominate until this year when about half of my students chose the topic, perhaps as they anticipated the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Remarkably, in 2011 as in 2001, the responses generally fell into three categories:

1) The terrorist mistake of bombing on 9/11 became an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate it is the strongest nation on earth.
2) 9/11 offered America the opportunity to learn from its mistaken efforts to dominate the globe.
3) Other.

Surely 1) and 2) offer diametrically opposed positions depending on how students view the United States' role as a world power, and the same discussions continue today with varying opinions on whether or not America "deserved" the attacks and the extent to which students believe America should fight terrorism.

The "other" category also continues to display remarkable consistency, especially in how 9/11 has changed the view of young people, who were 8 or 9 at the time of the attacks. Whatever position these essays take on 9/11, each bemoans the "loss of security" in America. Some essays recall how simply driving over the George Washington Bridge in New York City or the Golden Gate in California struck terror into their hearts for many years, but that this "unmistakable fear" also brought "opportunities" to learn and change.

Much sadness has followed 9/11. Many students, both American and international, have lost family members in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many of the older freshman and transfer students are veterans of the wars themselves. For them 9/11 was a "mistake" not simply because they have to use this word given by the prompt and explain how it became an "opportunity," but because these essays, regardless of their political positions, consistently view terrorism as a mistaken form of protest.

In the multiple ways students see 9/11 as a "mistake," they ultimately see the opportunity to learn about the world, as new and frightening as it may seem to them. Many students who have no background at all in Muslim culture say they have enrolled in Arabic and Farsi classes. Others are signed up in courses on religion, politics and world literatures that address questions of terror and political conflict. All these are no doubt opportunities to make the world a better, safer place.

Ultimately, the classroom remains politically divided on the aftermath of 9/11, but one thing remains clear: the need for further cultural understanding. No doubt students assert some of their greatest opportunities arise from study of new languages and cultures. Now is the time for such an opportunity.