The son of a police officer sparks the creation of a new course dedicated to the memory of 9/11, a decade on.
By Christopher Hann
John Dabrowski C’12 was in sixth grade on Sept. 11, 2001. In the late afternoon he watched his father, a Jersey City motorcycle cop who’d been called to Ground Zero, strip off his uniform in the backyard of their home in North Bergen, N.J., and with a garden hose try to wash away the dirt and grime—and maybe the memories—that still clung to him.
Eight years later, in a poetry workshop with Assistant Professor Patrick Phillips, Dabrowski set his haunting tableau to words. “Cleaning,” his eight-stanza elegy, is written from the point of view of that sixth-grade boy, his faced pushed against the window screen as he watched his father undress.
“My father is naked in the backyard,” Dabrowski wrote. “And his skin has dark, worn eyes. The towers fell. He has seen too much.”
It is not lost on Dabrowski, who is 21 years old, that in the not-so-distant future first-year students entering Drew will have no recollection of the events of 9/11. So he was especially moved to learn that his writing had inspired a JanTerm poetry course last winter dedicated to personal memory and public events. “A complete honor,” he calls it.
How Dabrowski’s poem motivated a private foundation to give $15,000 to fund the JanTerm course is a fairly complicated tale. It begins with Thomas L. Doremus C’68.
A retired architect, Doremus directs the Casement Fund, a New York City foundation for writing and the arts. In December 2009, he arranged a poetry reading in Manhattan for Drew students. And while it’s fair to say that Doremus was touched, if not overwhelmed, by each of their presentations, none struck him as deeply as Dabrowski’s adolescent lamentations.
“Everybody’s just silent,” Doremus says, recalling the response at the reading. “It was such a personal distillation of a little kid confronting this enormous event and seeing it through what had happened to his father. You could sense the fear in the little kid.”
Before long, Doremus had arranged for the Casement Fund to underwrite the JanTerm course. For two weeks in January, seven students studied with adjunct professor Kamilah Moon, worked with New York artist Marjorie Morrow—her drawings, completed in the weeks immediately following 9/11, were displayed in Rose Memorial Library —and visited Morrow’s studio in the city.
Although the course was inspired by a gifted undergrad and funded with the aid of a devoted alum, Dabrowski says he’s never actually met Doremus. But if he did?
“I would thank him, like, a million times,” Dabrowski says. “I really appreciate that he funds the voices of writers at Drew. I appreciate the confidence he has in the Drew writers’ community. And I’m really, really happy that he likes my voice.”
my father is stripping in the backyard,
in front of the tomato plants
and that rusted swing set.
i can hear them talk,
the neighborhood watch,
when his uniform falls
on the grass like sunlight
my father is naked in the backyard,
and his skin has dark, worn eyes.
the towers fell.
he has seen too much.
there are a thousand stories
in the dirt of my father’s flesh.
he grabs the Clorox bottle,
the liquid tumbles fast, down
his chest, zipping across
his stomach, faster.
the green water hose tangles
at his dusty feet, when he sees me
watching from the window, my face
against the screen.
his mouth moves—syllables
collect inside the still blue sky.
they hang against his shoulders,
my father is in the backyard,
naked, crying. i want to
kiss him against his cheek
but he might fall into the center
of the earth, swirling in its core.
—John Dabrowski C’12