College was a time for me to do some cool things. It was a time to make myself healthier, smarter and stronger. It was a time to try leading different groups. I had the opportunity to become the band president and the president of my fraternity. I was nominated for the homecoming court. There were many cool leadership opportunities for me.
Throughout those years I realized how cool college was. It was all about me. I could redefine myself so when I went back to my high school reunion I would be someone different, someone better.
Something changed in my senior year. I went to a saxophone lesson that morning and my teacher, who was a CNN junkie, said, "This is odd: it looks like an airplane has hit the World Trade Center tower." We all pictured some recreational biplane that just went out of control. I had no idea what that meant. A few minutes later, someone from the maintenance staff knocked on the door and interrupted our lesson, which was very unusual, and told us to come to the teachers’ lounge and watch it on TV. It was clearly not a recreational biplane that had run into the tower. My teacher turned to me and said, “I think our lesson’s over for the day.”
I grabbed my things and left. The next thing on my list was to get dressed up and have my senior picture taken for the Vanderbilt yearbook. So I went to the student union and waited with all the other students. We’re all huddled around the TV when we see the first tower collapse. At that point, the photographer steps out and says, “Next! Adam Bernick?”
I went in and had my picture taken and I always look at that picture from my yearbook and know how fake my smile was. It was so fake because I had no idea why I was smiling. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. When I look at my college yearbook, I always remember that moment.
The rest of the day started to move on. We had a couple of classes, some were cancelled, some weren’t. That evening we had our chapter meeting and I realized then that it really wasn’t about me anymore. My time in college wasn’t about preparing me to be better for me, it was about preparing me to engage with other people. But I didn’t know how to do that. I didn’t know what you did when your country was attacked. What do I do? I’m a college senior. What do you do when that happens?
You figure it out.
It was a really interesting day for me. It changed the way I thought about what my role in life was supposed to be. It wasn’t about me anymore. It’s about all of us.
There was a lot of fear that day and a lot of anxiety. Every day since then I think many communities have grown stronger and learned to trust each other and share in the human experience. That’s my hope for what I can contribute as a person. It really follows from that day.
When I was here [at Randolph] this weekend for the TEDx conference, I heard many outstanding speakers. One of these speakers really hit a nerve with me. Cynthia Lankford’s speech was about reigniting passion and for me that passion was what I derived from my September 11 experience when I figured out that it’s not about me. It’s about others. Her speech for TEDx was not a September 11 speech but one on the theme of reigniting. I was so moved by her speech that I asked if she would consider coming today and talking to you.
Ms. Langford’s passion for writing was kindled at 14. She is an accomplished writer and poet. I hope, as I did, you will find her standing poetry to be captivating, compelling, and inspiring. You can hear Ms. Lankford’s speech here: lankford
In closing, she left the students with this challenge: "Today I challenge you to do one thing, to set fire to your passion."