For several years after September 11, I would have my students write out what they remember about that day. I explained to them that someday their children and grandchildren would want to know about it, and it was important that they write down every little thing they remember about that day. I stopped doing that assignment in 2007 when I realized all I was getting back from the kids was what they saw on TV specials about 9/11. Their accounts did not contain any personal tidbits of what teachers said, or how their parents reacted. The fact was – the kids were too young when it happened to remember anything about that day.
As I have been watching the specials on TV today, it occurred to me that I have never written down what I remember about 9/11. I remember like it happened yesterday, but until now, I’ve never written it down.
I was teaching 7th and 8th Communications Arts, Science, and Math in a small, rural 1A school. If it sounds odd that I taught so many different classes, you should know that teachers in 1A schools might have small classes, but they usually have 6 or 7 different preps. Every hour I taught a different grade or different subject.
I arrived at school early because it was the Tuesday morning after the monthly School Board meeting the night before. We always had a brief faculty meeting in the library before school and the principal/superintendent would go over what happened in the Board meeting. There were only about 20 teachers in the K-12 faculty and I noticed that two teachers, a husband and wife, were not at the meeting. They had a large family to get ready for school and it was not unusual for them to arrive at the last minute, laughing about some last minute family disaster that happened as they were leaving. The faculty meeting was over and we were getting up to go to our classes, when all of a sudden the late-teacher husband stuck his head in the door and exclaimed, “Aren’t you guys watching what is going on? Turn on the TV.”
I was worried about 7th graders walking into my empty room and getting into mischief so I continued heading to my class, but behind me I heard Dennis talking about a plane and a building. The bell was ringing to start school and I did find kids milling around in my classroom. They had band first period, so I scooted them out and began writing the assignments on the board. About ten minutes later I walked back up to the library. The TV was on and several teachers and high school students were watching.
I knew it was something big and my first reaction was that I wanted to pretend that it wasn’t going on. By this time the second plane had hit. All I could do was look at the buildings, knowing they were full of people, and wondering how many were dying. We were thousands of miles from where it was happening, but I felt sick to my stomach.
The bell for the second period rang and I knew kids would be filling my room quickly, so I went back down to my classroom. I could tell that the kids knew nothing of what was going on. It didn’t feel right for me to change their world. I remember thinking that I would stretch their quiet, normal world 55 minutes longer. What was going on outside would not make its way into my 7th grade classroom. We had class as usual, but I don’t remember what the lesson was about.
When the 8th graders came in the next period, again I could tell they knew nothing about the news, so I gave them 55 more minutes of a normal world. I knew it would all change for them next period because they had a class in the library. The TV had been on up there since the faculty meeting.
I normally taught a small 9th grade Applied Math class fourth period, but my students never came. I walked down to the computer lab which had been their last class and found them glued to the TV. As I walked in, the computer teacher turned around and said, “The buildings have just collapsed. We just saw it all happen!” Again, I had this terrible feeling of the world outside falling apart, and I didn’t want to see it happen.
I walked up to the library to see what was happening with the 7th and 8th graders. When I got up there, the TV was off, and they were all quietly working at tables. I walked up to the teacher with a questioning look. She whispered that the principal came in and turned the TV off before the kids got here. I remember how all the kids in the room were watching me whispering with the teacher. It didn’t register until later that the kids were picking up that something was very wrong, but no one was talking.
I ate lunch in my room, but did go on the computer. I started reading the news, but was finding it overwhelming. I belonged to a teacher idea share group on yahoo covering middle school science, so I decided to go there. The posts were about teaching metric conversion. When I checked the posts the next day, a teacher from New York had written that she couldn’t believe people were posting about lessons still. She had watched the skyline change and knew that some of her students had lost a parent or a loved one in the towers. I just checked the posts’ library as I’m writing this, and ten years later her post is still there – a little piece of history.
When the kids came back after lunch they were different, quiet. I started my lesson again but one of the boys raised his hand.
“What’s happening, Mrs. Jones? No one will tell us.”
It was over.
I slowly told them what I knew. Planes. Buildings. The Pentagon. The plane in Pennsylvania.
“How many people died?”
“I don’t know. A lot.”
I told the kids this was an important day. Things had changed. I told them they were going to be all right. They were safe. No one was going to hurt them. Our school, our town, our state was safe. But things had changed and a lot of people had died.
I don’t remember anything else at school after that. I went home and sat in front of the TV watching until late in the evening.
The next day the kids told me how their PE teacher 8th period had taken them outside so they could see a perfectly blue sky with no airplane trails in it. Our town was directly beneath a main east-west path for planes and at any time you could look up and see five or six white airplane trails in the sky. But not on the afternoon of 9/11.
I remember the assembly a week later when all the teachers sang “God Bless America” for the students. I remember watching a teacher I didn’t like, tear up as she sang.
Looking back I think by not acknowledging what was going on that morning, I was trying to shield myself as well as the kids from what had happened. Sometimes I wish I had grabbed a TV and sat and watched it along with the rest of the school. You know - watched history happen. I had no direction at all from the administration at the school of what to do that day, and nothing would have happened if I had suspended teaching and sat and watched TV with my students. Maybe I should have.
But sometimes I like to think I gave my students three more hours than they would have had, of a world with no terrorists.