By Jamie Meeker, Montgomery Township Education Association
I’ve seen the musical Come from Away three times—more than almost any other stage show. I wasn’t sold on the concept of the show initially—who wants to see a musical, which should be an escape from reality, about the 9/11 terrorist attacks? It wasn’t until the performance on the 2017 Tony Awards, which can be credited for saving them from a disastrously early closing, that propelled me to purchase tickets.
I first saw it in April 2018, after obsessively listening to the soundtrack post-Tony’s. The brilliant, 100-minute, one-act musical swept me off my feet. I laughed, I cried, and I marveled at the fact that they only paused for applause three times in the entire show. Before the first song was over, I knew I had to bring my 11th-grade AP Language and Composition students.
In the fall of 2018, in my eighth year of teaching English at Montgomery High School, I brought 45 students and five colleagues to see the show. This past January, I brought another group of 45 students, including one who came the year before and loved it so much she leapt at the chance of seeing it again. Each time I see it, I discover something new to love. It has been exceptionally special to share my love of this show with my students. Two years in a row, a student attendee wrote a review for our school newspaper, praising both the show and its connection to our academic lives. Recently, I’ve found myself turning to this show to express my anxiety in these strange times.
One of the primary characters, American Airlines Captain Beverly Bass, repeatedly sings the line “I’m fine, Tom. I’m fine.” Each time she sings it, there’s a different meaning behind the simple phrase. The first is meant as reassurance: she and her passengers are alive, safe from the devastating 9/11 attacks. Despite being stuck in Gander, Newfoundland, she knows she will wake up and see tomorrow. The second is when she has learned her colleague and friend was one of the pilots killed in the attacks. You can hear the break in her voice, as she tries to convince her husband and herself that she’s OK when she’s not. The third, in one of the last songs of the show, is when she finally arrives in Texas and sees Tom, her husband, in person.
Despite being home, finally back on American soil, Captain Bass sounds the most grief-stricken. The pent-up despair and hopelessness of a situation so completely out of her control fully hits her, and the audience can hear the tears she’s held back for so long begin to fall. Captain Bass’s solo song, “Me and the Sky,” powerfully depicts a woman who is always in charge, steady and sure-footed. This final refrain of “I’m fine” reminds the audience how much this situation has affected her and will continue to throughout the rest of her career and life.
Since originally hearing the cast recording, I find myself singing that line frequently, both in my head and (regrettably) out loud when people ask me how I’m doing. And that question, right now, is being asked more than ever. I use the line as a barometer of how I’m truly feeling, as I think about where in the show I’m singing it from.
Is it hope, even though current circumstances don’t totally call for it? Disbelief and sadness for the realization that I can never go back to what I had before? Overwhelming grief, mixed with the realization that people are here to care for me and love me? While it may sound like I’m simply responding, “I’m fine,” there is always more behind those words.
And if it’s true for me, I know it’s true for my students as well. In this era of distance learning, I check on them daily, pushing out Google Forms that ask them both serious and silly questions. If a student skips one day, I flag them on my roster. Once they’ve missed two days in a row, I send an email. Typically, I get a response saying, “I’m fine” and explaining how they’ve been spending their time. The most endearing told me she was spending much more time with her brother and dog, which left little time to respond to my surveys. Other times, it’s “I’m fine, just (bored, sad, lonely),” and I press to make sure they can see the good that’s around. I have tried to be as optimistic as possible, but it is utterly exhausting. The hitch in my voice when I speak to colleagues and my family has and will continue to betray me, just like Captain Bass.
I was twelve when the attacks on the Twin Towers changed the United States forever. It was frightening and traumatic, but my age shielded me from the worst of it. It is through reading and art like “Come from Away” that I see the effects it had when it was happening.
I turned 31 during this pandemic. I am fully, painfully aware of the struggles my peers are experiencing. I have friends who were furloughed and don’t know if or when they will receive their next paycheck. My best friend and several family members are healthcare providers and put themselves at risk every day. My colleagues and I may never see some of our senior students again. The grief I feel now will stay with me, in some way, forever.
I say “I’m fine” like Captain Bass, and in many ways, it’s true. I’m safe. I’m healthy. I have a home and food and the internet. But I’m also not. I miss my students, my colleagues, my friends and family. I also desperately miss physical touch—I had no idea I could crave a hug. I spend my day listening to stressed out students share with me both trivial and ultra-serious complaints. Like those stuck in Gander in 2001, I don’t know how much longer this will last. While it persists, I will continue to say “I’m fine.” And I am. I’m fine, world. I’m fine.