As the tenth anniversary of the most significant historical event in my life approaches, I am overwhelmed with memories of that day and those that followed. As is so often the case, I am struggling to make sense of this important date for my young students.
This morning, before school began, I found myself thinking back to that sunny Tuesday morning, ten long years ago. I found that when I viewed the day through the prism of my life as an educator, several key moments kept repeating in my mind’s eye.
I remember our principal coming into the empty classroom where I stood chatting with a colleague. She handed us a printed page which said, “Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.” She said, “We aren’t talking about this with the kids yet,” and she left the room. I was totally bewildered. Why would a plane crash rate this level of attention and secrecy? It made no sense. It was only after other teachers began to put the pieces together that I came to the realization that this was terrorism of some type.
It’s hard now to even remember what it was like to live in a time when the idea of “terrorism” was so foreign to us. I can’t even call up the sense of naiveté and innocence that prevailed on September tenth of 2001.
But I remember what it felt like to have that innocence taken away. I remember that the principal asked me to help my colleagues to handle the stress of what was unfolding. As the school’s speech/language specialist, I didn’t have a classroom to worry about, and I was free to help take care of children if their teacher needed to leave the room. I remember going into a sixth grade class, where a TV was showing coverage of the terrible events unfolding. At that early time in the morning, the news was just beginning to report which flights were involved. I clearly remember the teacher in that room, hearing that flight 11 out of Boston was one of the flights that had hit the towers, gasping and collapsing into her chair. “My niece is on the flight! She’s on that flight!” She fled from the classroom, cell phone in hand. I stayed to answer the questions of the wide eyed children in the classroom.
I remember standing in the room, some time later, as these eleven year old children watched the news in their classroom. I remember one little girl turning to me with fear in her eyes. “What if the towers collapse?” she asked me. “Will they tip over and hit all of those other buildings?” The idea seemed so ridiculous to me at that moment that I said what I thought was true. I put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Oh, honey! Those towers are huge. They can’t collapse!” Ten minutes later, another teacher had replaced me in that room, and I was on the other side of the building when the first tower succumbed and filled the streets with the smoke and ash of its death throes. To this day, I carry remorse for having lied in my innocence to that trusting little girl.
I remember being called to the office by my principal, to help in interpreting for a family who had arrived only three weeks before from Russia. The parents had arrived at our school to reclaim their two children, filled with fear about what was happening. I remember that the Principal, a friend whom I trusted and supported, told me to reassure the parents. “We are sure that we can keep the children safe here. We think that they would do best if they stayed with the other kids.” I repeated her word, in Russian, to the weeping Mother and her stoic husband. But I remember wondering if I was telling the truth, as I stood there with my heart pounding and my palms damp.
And I remember being back at school on the morning of September 12th. As one of the adults who did not have a classroom to greet, I was asked to meet the children as they got off the buses in the morning. It was another lovely, warm morning. I stood at my post by the back door of our school, watching as children got off of each bus. I greeted each with a smile, did my best to appear calm and welcoming. We were worried about the fear that we assumed each child would be feeling. We knew that they had heard and seen things on television that would be confusing and overwhelming for them. We were worried about children who might have known people on the flights (we knew of at least three families who had lost loved ones on those planes). I stood and surveyed each face, looking for signs of fear or stress. I remember that one little boy, a first grader at the time, looked up at me with his big blue eyes and asked, “Did you hear what the Arabs did yesterday?” I was caught off guard by his question, and unsure of how to answer him. As I paused to form a response, I looked past his shoulder and saw his classmate, an Arab American Muslim child, standing frozen by the door.
I’m not sure now of what I said to those two confused and frightened first grade classmates. I don’t remember what I said to the remaining hundreds of children who passed me by that day. It is the memory of those little ones, who looked to me for guidance and reassurance, that stay in my mind today.
This morning, just two days before the tenth anniversary of those terrible attacks, I was surrounded once again by ten year old children. This time the class is mine, and I am the one charged with keeping them safe and secure. As the topic of the 9/11 attacks came up, I was shocked to realize that these children were not yet born when it happened. They have an awareness of those events, in the same way that I have an awareness of the attack at Pearl Harbor. But the awful reality of that day does not weigh on them as it does on us. They have never lived in a world as innocent as the one we lost that morning. They cannot relate to the idea of a time before terrorism.
I will spend a lot of time tonight pondering the significance of this reality.