Thursday, September 11, 2008

Our Day That Will Live in Infamy

Every generation has one -- that moment in time when we all share a common experience and bond together, if only briefly, as a result. That moment when you will always know exactly where you were when it happened. Sadly, that moment is usually one wrapped in grief and tragedy. Our moment is never one of joy and celebration, of life, but rather of death. For our grandparents, it was December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America was shoved into World War II. For our parents, it was November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the fairy tale world that was Camelot came crashing down. For us, it's September 11, 2001, the day that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked by commercial airliners that had been hijacked. It was a moment when the world seemed at once to both stand still and go careening off its axis. Just as the lives of our grandparents and parents were changed by their moments, so, too, were ours.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was ten days into my teaching career. After a couple years spent trying to figure out what to do with my life post-college (including a miserable year in law school), a couple years back in school to take the classes I needed to become certified to teach, and a couple years job hunting while working as a teaching aide in an elementary school, I had found a great job -- ironically not only in the school where I had completed my student teaching but in the same classroom, replacing the woman who had been my mentor teacher. It was an overwhelming time with a lot of responsibilities and kind of coming to terms with the reality of teaching. (A lot of my idealistic philosophy had already bitten the dust.) That morning, I taught my first hour class (Study Skills, which was a course designed for sophomores who had failed or come close to failing English their freshman year but who had been identified as having the potential to be more successful with a little extra guidance). Second hour was my prep period. I went downstairs to the library to confirm that I would be bringing my freshmen classes down the next period to check out library books for their book reports.

When I got to the library, the librarian (who was a grouchy, chain smoking woman that everyone in the building both hated and feared and yet who, for some reason I've never been able to fathom, just loved me and was never anything but kind and helpful to me) was standing in front of a tv in the library, just silently staring at the screen. I could see some sort of smoking building on the screen but couldn't really tell what was going on, so I asked.

"Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center," she told me.

"Like a little plane like before?" I asked, thinking of the small place that someone had tried to fly into the White House just a few years earlier.

"I don't think so," was her response. As we stood there watching, the second plane hit. We both let out gasps and looked at each other with the same unspoken thought -- this is bad.

I went back upstairs to my classroom and logged onto and turned on the tv in my own room to try to figure out what the heck was going on. Somehow, word had already started to spread through the building. My department chair came walking into my room with a junior girl who was sobbing, overwhelmed with emotion over what was going on.

"Can Kelly come in here where it's quiet for just a little bit?" she asked. Apparently they had been watching the news on television and Kelly had lost it. I quickly turned off my tv and the two of us sat with Kelly for quite sometime, just letting her cry, neither of us able to come up with any sort of words of comfort since we, too, were shocked and devastated. After a while, Kelly had composed herself enough that she was ready to go back to class, and a bond was formed in that moment between me and Kelly that lasted until she graduated the next year.

Before the next period started, an email had gone out from our principal asking us to try to keep things as "normal" as possible but to be prepared for more cases like Kelly and letting us know that the counselors were available to help us. The principal also made an announcement to the school reporting the facts and encouraging them to stay strong. When my freshmen came in third hour, I decided to go ahead and take them down to the library to check out their book report books and then just let them read quietly. I kept the tv off, but CNN on my computer -- which is how I found out that the towers were collapsing.

At this time, I taught Journalism, and my sister worked at the local paper in Galesburg, the local paper which provided free newspapers to classrooms. The Galesburg paper is an afternoon paper, and I realized that they would have coverage of the attacks that day. I called my sister and asked if there was any way I could get some papers for my Journalism class which met at the very end of the day. She told me what a crazy day she was witnessing, seeing the media coverage in a behind the scenes way. She told me, "I actually heard someone yell 'Stop the presses' and they meant it!" She told me how the paper had been minutes away from going to press and the publisher had come running down the stairs yelling for them to stop while they scrambled upstairs to put together a new front page.

I was able to get the papers that afternoon, just in time for my 7th hour Journalism class, a class full of juniors and seniors, including Kelly. The kids snatched the papers out of my hands as soon as they realized what they were and spent the next hour reading, pouring over the articles, occasionally looking up to see what CNN had to say, trying to make sense of what they were witnessing. They were grieving, they were confused, they were angry (since this was about the time that CNN started showing the dancing in the streets in Middle Eastern cities), and they were scared. That was the first time when I really grasped what I had taken on in becoming a teacher, the tremendous responsibility I had in the lives of these kids, because I (and my colleagues) were the ones they were coming to for answers and guidance. I had to do my best to put aside my own grief and confusion and anger and fear to help them navigate this thing. It is a responsibility I feel every day I walk through my classroom door.

1 comment:

Jen said...

It's hard to believe it was only 7 years ago, because it feels like a lifetime. I was at home, amid boxes because we had moved in less than a month before, and I spent the morning glued to the television in dread, thankful that Jack was only a year and half old and couldn't understand what was happening.

Your students were lucky to have you that day, and they're lucky to have you now.