Teach Your Children Well

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There are teachable moments, and there are teachable moments. The life-altering, perspective-shifting events that are so important to the way our children perceive the world don’t happen all that often, but when they do, we parents are required to step up to the plate and do our best work.

Ten years ago when the World Trade Center was attacked, I, like everyone else, I was completely undone—and was compelled to not only impart life lessons to my own children, but to a classroom of fourth graders who were in my charge as my CCD students.

In my personal story of that morning, soon after my three kids were sent off to school, my dear friend Fran called me and asked if I had the TV on; I did not, so she said “Turn on the news—right now!”

Watching the footage of a plane hitting the first tower, I was utterly shocked, thinking it was a horrible, bizarre accident. I hung up with my friend to quickly call my mother, who often takes day trips to Manhattan, just to tell her “something” was going on- we didn’t know what yet- and to advise her not to venture in that day. We were still on the phone together when I saw the second plane heading for the other tower. I was confused and suddenly consumed with cold dread. My dad got on the phone and was the one to get it through to me that this was this was no accident. He believed, even at that point, that it was an actual attack on the United States, an act of war.

The kids in school presented a problem all of us parents faced: We debated whether to leave them there, unaware of anything wrong, until we knew if it was necessary to go and pick them up for their safety, or to let them remain in their regular schedules. After discussing it with my husband (who thankfully worked on Long Island) we decided to let our fifteen-year-old, our eleven-year-old, and our nine-year-old stay put for the time being. Other parents rushed to the schools and took their kids home; I was just grateful there was a safe place to leave them in “normal” life for as long as possible. Truly, I wasn’t ready to assume my mom persona and be present for them; I had to get a grip on myself and try and understand what was going on first. As I was already dressed for work I tried to cling to my own routine to remain calm. I went over to the school district where I was the public relations specialist, a fifteen minute drive from my home.

Because I live on a part of Long Island that has a view of the city right across the water, I could actually see the towers burning, the black smoke belching and billowing to the sky, that sky that was such a perfect azure a couple of hours earlier. At one point, I stopped my car next to a line of others on a rise in the road, and joined the other drivers who had also gotten out of their vehicles to watch, all of us silent and scared and unsure of what this all meant. I flipped between news stations on the car radio, trying to get as much information as I could.

As soon as I got to work, I saw the TV was turned to CNN in the superintendent’s office and the Pentagon was attacked as I stared. We’re under siege, I thought. I realized no work would get done that day, at least not by me, so I turned around and headed for home. 

I called Fran back, and we decided what we really needed above all else was to be together, so I went to her house. We walked numbly back and forth from her skyline-facing kitchen window to watch the destruction right before our eyes, to the TV, where we looked at the increasingly freaked-out reporters trying to make sense of it all. Fran’s husband was working in the city that day, as was my brother, my cousins, along with countless friends and acquaintances. There was no cell service, no regular phone service, no telegram or pony express or smoke signal service. We couldn’t know where any of them were, and though none of our nearest-and-dearest were supposed to be in lower Manhattan that day, we still didn’t know if they were okay, and even more terrifying, if, and where, another attack would happen. We learned from the news reports that mass transit was non-existent, so how were any of them going to get home—if they were all right? It was comforting to be with Fran, and we tried countless times to get in touch with our loved ones in the city, but our efforts were, of course, fruitless. I hated leaving her not knowing where her husband was, but eventually I had to get back to my house in case of … I don’t know what. No one know where to put themselves, how to feel, what to do, and we ultimately decided to keep in constant contact and to come if either of us needed the other for any reason.

I also wanted to be with my sister, who also lives and works near me, but as she’s a nurse – a prospective first responder- she had to be available to go if necessary; all hands were evidently on deck in case the call came for them. In any event, she was at work, and had to stay there, so I couldn’t be with her.

My fifteen-year-old son came home from high school first, full of questions about the rumors and half truths he’d heard at school, and then my eleven-year-old daughter arrived from middle school, also wanting answers. I had very few for either of them. I picked up my youngest daughter at her bus stop, and she was also confused about what the teachers had tried to explain in language understandable to nine year olds, when there is no language for this. I did the best I could, but even at age thirty-eight, there was no understanding complete evil.

I tried not to show my extreme fear and anxiety to them, and made sure the TV was off when they were in the room. In fact, I attempted to get the subject off their minds, suggesting that my son go skateboarding down the block at his friend’s house as usual, and that my daughter do her homework in her room (where there was no TV.) My littlest one, as I recall, stuck close to me, and after she did her homework, we made cookies or something together. To my great relief, my husband came home soon after, and I was never so happy to see him—whole and healthy, and not covered in white dust as so many other New Yorkers arrived at their homes that day. We couldn’t help but keep watching, over and over—watching, watching, watching those unbearable, unbelievable images, trying to wrap our brains around what had happened. There is still a part of my brain, ten years later, that can’t contain it, even after all the commentary I’ve absorbed. I’ve watched documentaries, movies with references to that day, read book after book, tons of articles, seen all the heartbreaking anniversary ceremonies and still, this does not compute on some level. 

Another aspect I have trouble comprehending is the realization that if you don’t live in New York, or didn’t at that time, you did not experience this as we did. You simply did not get it like we got it, did not have that sickening, hellish burned smell stuck in your nose for months, didn’t look into the stunned eyes of passersby in the city, did not feel it like we did. It seems to me that there is an element of disconnect from the rest of America, except for Pennsylvania where the other plane crashed, and in Washington, D.C. where the Pentagon building is.

I truly am not trying to say that Americans all over the country were not affected—and affected very, very deeply by the attacks, because obviously we ALL were. It changed the complexion of this nation irrevocably and in countless ways. But …  if it didn’t happen in your back yard, as it did to us New Yorkers, that smoke—that toxic, sickening smoke—did not fill your lungs and noses and those of your children, and you didn’t see the “pile,” as it came to be known, burning in the near distance day after day, month after month. Who knows what was burning, aside from the obvious? The mind recoils from the possibilities; after all, there were very few recognizable human remains found. The rest of those people … ? Well, my mind still recoils.

Yes, there are many facets related to the horrific events of that September day in 2001. So, how have we parents done? How we acted and reacted that day and in all the days that have followed are reverberating within the psyches of our children, who, let’s face it, have lived a large chunk of their lives under the shadow of this tragedy. What have we taught our kids about the world since then? How have we managed to put it in context? When I ask my children what they remember, their stories are typical, I believe, of most of their peers; they heard rumors in school, then came home anxious and turning to us, their parents, for answers. I imagine my husband and I behaved as most of our peers did: we looked at them helplessly for a moment, trying to form the right words to narrate this episode in their young lives, to give them the reassurance they surely craved, to make sure they knew we would take care of them, and the world was still a safe, sane place.

And naturally I’m referring to the parents who are still here. What about the kids whose mothers or fathers did not get to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to Long Island (as Fran’s husband did) or to find another way home? (My brother walked to the nearest car rental place with a friend, and was lucky enough to get one of the few available cars.) Those children, I know, have had communities, doctors, teachers, grief counselors, and other family members to help them over the years, but there are no words for the loss those kids have endured and I won’t even attempt the hubris of trying to write them. All I can do is hope that they find peace, somehow, some day.

I happened to have been a religious education teacher during that time, and I was with the 4th graders that year (I taught every age at one time or another.) My teaching methods were, in some ways, unorthodox; I did follow the curriculum, but after quickly perusing the assigned textbook chapter with my students, we tossed the book aside and got down to “real life.” I always did a great deal of art with them at the big table we could all sit around together, because I found that kids who are creating craft projects and coloring are often much more relaxed and talkative than kids who are stuck in desk chairs staring at the blackboard. They knew they could talk to each other all they wanted during “art time.” Because I also implemented an anonymous question box, into which anyone could slip an unsigned query about anything at all, we often talked about those topics as well, and I managed to bring the discussion back around to the day’s lesson. Obviously, in the weeks surrounding September 11, we talked about how they were feeling, what they were thinking, and I tried to answer their questions as best I could. All of them, without fail, wanted to know “how God could let this happen.”

I knew this would come up, and I answered right from the heart, what I truly believed. I said, “Oh, I really, really think God has been crying; He must be so sad seeing what his children have done to each other.”

They were all quiet at that. Then one of them asked, “But—why did he let it happen? Couldn’t he have stopped it? He’s GOD!”

So, I had to go into how God gave us the greatest gift of all—free will. We all have the choice to treat each other well—or not. We get to be the good guys, or the bad guys; it’s completely up to us.

And that’s the message I hope our kids got from the attacks of September 11, that I hope we as parents made sure they understand. Every one of us has the choice to do the right thing, to be a force for good in the world, to help each other. And when evil rears its ugly, horrifying head, as it will time and again in their lives, what can we teach our kids, except to keep on keeping on, trying our best to be the good guys?

—Jean Kearney Graham
2012

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