A Look Back

Nine years ago I was just starting my teaching internship in an eighth grade language arts classroom. It happened on a Tuesday, but I didn’t write about it until four days later. Here is an excerpt from my journal entry that Saturday:

Last week was the first full school week that we had. Everything was going fairly smoothly – both the kids and I were settling into a routine…until Tuesday, September 11, 2001, when routines all over the United States and even the world were shattered.

At 8:45 a.m. a commercial airliner, hijacked by terrorists, smashed full force into the first tower of New York City’s World Trade Center. Minutes later, a second plane was flown by another set of suicide hijackers into the second tower. An orange fireball exploded the serenity of a clear blue sky and black clouds of choking smoke obstructed the world’s view of freedom and democracy.

The replays of this inconceivable event are spattered on news stations and across my memory. But they weren’t finished…and maybe aren’t even now…because  a short time later, a third plane crashed into the Pentagon. A fourth plane with an unknown destination plummeted to the ground somewhere in Pennsylvania – possibly headed for the White House or maybe Camp David.

So many innocent civilian lives were taken by these horrible criminals. How could this happen – here, home, in the safety of the United States of America?

And where was I when all this was happening? Contained with 800 middle schoolers, oblivious to a national crisis, to the fact that my country was in a state of emergency. While airports across my land were shutting down hard, while the two World Trade Center towers were collapsing, burying thousands of people under 110 stories of rubble, while people were crying out with disillusionment, I was teaching in room 204, completely unaware.

We [the teachers], though the administration knew much earlier, did not find out about this until almost one o’clock in the afternoon. I didn’t realize the enormity of the situation even after I was told. My cooperating teacher took my kids, our last class, and told me to go watch the TV that was set up in a locked teachers’ room.

The kids were not to be told until two o’clock when they would be pulled back into their home bases. I’m glad that I didn’t have to go back into that classroom after I’d crept down to watch the coverage. I couldn’t have pretended nothing was wrong after seeing those awful, astounding images. I felt sick; nausea sat in my stomach. Unexpressed, unknown, even unfelt feelings condensed themselves into a rock and set up camp in my gut. I was shocked and confused.

Then followed, at two o’clock, an excruciating half hour when we had to tell the kids. Strict orders from administration warned us not to “speculate”. They felt the kids must be told the bare bones of the day’s events before they got on the bus with high schoolers who knew the truth, or got home to TV and radio stations, each of which were covering news and only news.

But we weren’t supposed to field any questions at all so that the kids wouldn’t worry and could process the information with their parents. If the second assistant principal hadn’t been in our room it probably would have been different. We would’ve answered questions with what we knew to be fact, but he wouldn’t tell them anything – not what “commercial” airliners were (“Was it a blimp or one of those planes trailing a banner?”), whether or not there were people on the planes, if the President and Colin Powell were safe, nothing.

It was horrible. I wanted to tell them what I knew, to save them from a shock, to at least put them at ease by assuring them that the President was safe. “If this was such a big deal, we’d be in a state of emergency.” (We were.)

I wanted to scream, to get up and leave, to cry and kick my feet. Anything but sit there and listen to him call on people only to say, “We don’t know. We just don’t know. We don’t have that information.”

What a crock. So much for being up front and honest with kids. These guys are eighth graders. Give me a break. They could’ve handled it. And they did handle it – extremely well – that day and in days following. They didn’t make jokes, they asked intelligent questions, and they were angry that they weren’t told earlier.

As well they should’ve been. I know it’s not on the same scale, but I was in 5th grade when the Challenger exploded and they let us see that. They told us right away. These kids had every right to be angry.

But they pulled together, like the rest of America. In my whole life, I’ve never been so proud of my country than I have been the past few days. Survivors report that there was no panic, no rushing and rioting on the stairwells of the Towers during evacuation. Volunteers galore have cascaded into NYC with supplies, donations, blood drives and manpower.

Rescue crews are at work, even as I write this, trying to find survivors in the tons and tons of rubble, despite dust, rain, smoke, treacherous conditions, exhaustion and dying hope.

The chances of anyone still being alive in that mess are extremely slim and dropping by the second. They just can’t get to them fast enough. So much dichotomy, irony. Technology isn’t enough. People trapped inside were calling out on their cell phones but we don’t, despite our advanced conditions, have the ability to get to them fast enough.

For me that contradiction is what makes the whole thing especially gruesome. Passengers on the planes called loved ones to say good-bye. It’s just heartbreaking. When I think about it too much…

We know that the PA plane passengers took a vote and decided to try to storm the cabin and take back the plane because they knew, by cell phone, that the Towers had been hit and assumed they too were headed for a national landmark. It is assumed that the plane went down in the struggle.

What brave, selfless people. God keep them.

Could I have been so brave? I think that’s a question every single American has asked themselves in the past few days. I pray none of us will ever have cause to find out the answer.

American flags are everywhere. Yesterday there was a nation-wide minute of silence for the victims of the terrorist attack and a candle-lighting at 7 p.m. I was driving home from work at the time and the streets were lined with people holding candles. There were candles set in the windows of many houses. I wish I had an American flag for my car. I wish I could do something.

But what? Just carry on, I guess, for now. Carry on, like the brave people who went back to work at the Pentagon on Wednesday, despite the fact that the building was still burning. Carry on, despite the fact that Tuesday’s events were considered an “attack on America” and have been called “war-like actions”, placing us on the brink of war. With who?

Osama bin Laden is the prime suspect and is harbored by Afghanistan. Bush has said that we will make no distinction between our enemies and those who offer them protection, so maybe we’ll fight Afghanistan, but everyone says it will be a second Vietnam. The thought frightens me.

But I must carry on to defeat the purpose of these attacks, the purpose of terrorism, which is to strike fear and panic into the hearts of those targeted. To make them question themselves and each other. To make them question their country and their safety.

Well, I will not give in. I can’t do much here, and I’m not directly connected to these events, in that I knew no victims and no one directly involved, but I’ll do what little I can. And if that means simply carrying on, then I’ll carry on with a full heart and the determination to help my country succeed.

2 responses to “A Look Back

  1. It’s poignant enough just remembering for myself, the events of that day, but re-living it through your words here as journaled at the time (or even through watching footage on TV that was taken back then) is even more raw. I watched a lot of CNN today. I don’t really even know what else to say about that. I don’t think anything in my entire life has ever affected me like September 11th, 2001. Thank God there are brave folk out there like your hubby – a special thanks to him today, please pass it along to him. And a special thanks to you too for sharing him & sacrificing your couple-time so that he can serve.

  2. Just got to read this…by the “current” events you give you “date” yourself…we are very close to the same age….

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