We were a few days into the school year and I already knew many challenges lay ahead. Prior to school starting the father of one of my students hung himself in their garage. The mother of the child thought that it may have been possible that her son saw what had happened before the police arrived to take him down. My homeroom mom had been battling stage 4 ovarian cancer for over a year and was in remission. She was eager to do as much with and for her daughter as she could while she was feeling well, but the doctors weren't optimistic about her prognosis. In addition, I had a handful of student with challenges ranging from bipolar disorder to Autism. However, I was prepared for the challenges and eager to get the school year started on a good note.
School started at 9:00 am. After morning announcements, another teacher popped his head into my classroom and announced that a plane had just crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers if I was interested in turning on my classroom TV. Of course, my fourth graders were intrigued and begged me to let them see what was going on. We were leaving for gym class in less than five minutes so I agreed to let them see the "current event" news coverage while they went about their morning routine. I remember wondering how something like that could happen when those towers are certainly large enough to avoid if you were flying a plane and found them suddenly in your sight. After seeing the building on fire, most of the students lost interest and went about their business. After a couple minutes I instructed them to line up for gym class. As they were all standing in line to leave, with their backs to the television, I watched the second plane strike the other tower. I gasped loudly and some of the kids turned around. I quickly grabbed the remote and turned off the TV. I was visibly shaken and a few observant children asked me what happened. I told them I wasn't sure and I would find out and let them know after gym class. As we walked down the steps and halls to the gym it was all I could do to hold it together. I KNEW something wasn't right and I was nauseous contemplating what I had just seen. I dropped off my students and headed back to my classroom to get an explanation for what I had just seen.
When I turned on the news, I was stunned. It took me several minutes to even let the reality sink in. Why? Why would someone do something so awful? I continued to watch the coverage as tears rolled down my cheeks. I had work to do, but I could hardly concentrate. About the time I told myself that I needed to pull it together, flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. We were under attack and I couldn't remember a time that I had felt so vulnerable and unsafe. What was I going to say to my students when I picked them up in five short minutes? They would know something was very wrong. Most children are perceptive and they had already seen some of the early coverage of the tragedy in NY. I didn't want them to worry or be scared. I wiped the tears from my face and tried to look as normal as possible. Pull it together Susan. You can do this!
As I walked, I rehearsed what I would say. I would downplay the situation and tell them as little as possible. It was the only way. As soon as I opened the door to the gym, they bombarded me with questions. I told them we would discuss it when we got upstairs. As we walked down the hall we passed several other teachers who made comments to me about what was going on. It was more than I wanted the kids to hear and I knew specific questions would be coming. I was right. We hadn't even crossed the threshold to the classroom before the rapid fire of questions began. I gathered the kids in the front of the classroom on the rug and told them that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City. I explained that the buildings were on fire because of the crashes and that many firefighters and police were trying to help the people who worked there. Suddenly, I noticed a panicky look on the face of one of the boys. He was a confident, athletic boy and not the type to cry in front of his friends, but he looked like he was about to do just that. I kept my eye on him as I continued to talk and answer questions. It wasn't long before his hand went up and with a broken voice he asked, "Do you know where those planes were coming from? Because my dad is a pilot and he was flying this morning." I figured it was safe to tell him that the flights had come from the New England area, thinking that his father had flown out of Philadelphia. As luck would have it, I was wrong and his dad had in fact been flying from somewhere up north. He started to cry. That is when things began to fall apart. Another boy started to cry because his grandma lived in NYC and he was worried about her. Others began to cry because they saw the others crying, or because they sensed or knew that something was very wrong.
About that time the principal came on the intercom and asked all teachers to immediately check their voice mail for an important message. That did not ease the fears of my students. I went to the phone and checked the message to hear him inform us of the events of the morning, including the new information that one of the towers had collapsed. Then he advised us to give the children no information and go about our regular day. Too late! No regular day was going to happen in my classroom. In fact, things were quickly deteriorating. The children were scared.
I called the principal and told him we had a situation in my room and I could use the counselor if she was available. He asked me what the kids knew and was relieved that they were fairly uninformed. He commended me on my choices so far and asked me to try my best to hold it together. The counselor came up and tried her best to reassure the students, some of who by now were milking the situation to keep from having to do work. It was only 10:30 in the morning and we had to recover from this and go on with the day. As I attempted to recover some sort of normalcy, teachers would come in here and there to whisper to me about the latest. "A plane has crashed somewhere here in Pennsylvania." "The other tower has fallen." The minutes were hours and focusing on my job was nearly impossible. Soon my classroom phone rang and it was my sister calling from California. My mom was worried sick because the only information that the media was reporting about flight 93 was that it had crashed "somewhere" in Pennsylvania. My mom had been trying to get through to me on both my cell phone and my classroom phone but apparently all lines were busy. That only made her panic more.
Around 11:30 the phone rang again. It was the mother of the student whose father was a pilot. She asked to speak to her son. My heart sank. I expected the worst. I called him to the phone and as he approached, tears filled his eyes. I will never forget the beauty of what happened next. The student who had just lost his father to suicide, who was not a close friend of this boy, got up from his seat and followed him to the phone. As the pilot's boy took the receiver from my hand, the other boy stood behind him with his hand on his shoulder for support. Because, if he was about to hear that he had lost his father, he certainly understood. Fortunately, the news was good, and his father's flight had been grounded by the FAA along with all other flights.
The rest of the school day was mostly a blur. For me it was all about getting it over with so that I could finally release the flood of emotion welling up inside me. Without a doubt it was my most difficult day as a teacher so far. Some parents, just wanting to be with their children and know that they were safe, came and picked them up early. We sent home a letter from the superintendent advising parents to be very cautious about how much, if any, coverage they let their children watch. Unfortunately, what one child hears and sees is often communicated to the masses at recess, and so for days we were dealing with questions and issues.
When I left the school that day, I sobbed like never before. I don't know if it was more because the emotions had been pent up, because my feeling of security in this land I love was gone with the towers, or because I mourned for the thousands who were truly suffering. Suffering loss, suffering pain....suffering.
I wish I could say that the impact ended there. Again, not the case. Eight of the girls in my class lost their soccer coach that day. He was one of the pilots on the second plane that hit the Trade Centers. His two children attended a neighboring elementary school in our district and many of the girls were friends with his daughter and the family. Many people in our community lost relatives and friends that day. It wasn't the start to the school year that I had hoped for. But, it was the start of a very special bond between my students and me. We went through a lot together that year. During the winter we lost our homeroom mother to the cancer that had been in remission. Our class pet, Cinnamon, the hamster, also went to heaven. Personally, I had a friend from college who was murdered. But, through it all we were there for each other and it is a year I will never forget. I learned so many lessons about resilience, love, hope, faith, support and community. I was always mindful of those who lost loved ones that day in September. My year was easy in comparison.
At the beginning of the next school year an oddly wonderful thing happened. It was almost like a rainbow, a sign from God that everything would be better that year. I met my future husband and he had worked, months before, at the World Trade Center. He wasn't working there on September 11th, but regardless I was thankful that God had spared him just for me.