Being a teacher on 9/11

September 11, 2001, also happened to be my second day of teaching high school. I had taught middle school the year prior, but my school, IS 111, had been shut down very abruptly and I landed a job in Cobble Hill, the neighborhood next to Brooklyn Heights, the neighborhood next to the East River that overlooked the grandeur of the Twin Towers as they stretched beyond the skyline of skyscrapers and into the sky. I was sitting in the make-shift teachers lounge (a dirty room with one computer and some grimy couches) with the gym teacher, Mr. Lewis. He was on the internet and reported to me, right around 9am, that a plane had flown into the Twin Towers. “Morons,” I said, thinking that it was a tiny Cessna gone haywire by a bad/inexperienced pilot. I imagined it bouncing off the building in a cartoon-esque fashion. I didn’t think much more of it. I walked upstairs to teach 2nd period.

I was starting The Crucible that day and had some sort of pre-reading lesson planned. I only remember this lesson because I can clearly recall a moment in which I was practically screaming, “Look at the book cover! Read the back. What can you infer? What does it tell you? Pay attention!”  This might clearly have been me in shock, but let me continue with my narrative until I reach this point.

I taught second period. The students came in jacked up on the adrenaline similar to that of having seen a fight, it was an erratic energy. The South Tower had been hit during passing (the time between classes) and a couple of students announced the news to the rest of us. To be honest, I didn’t believe them. Is that horrible to say? I thought they were tellers of tall tales. I ordered them to sit down and we started the lesson. Questions of, “Can I go to the bathroom” were ignored, nobody left the room, and I taught the lesson. It was only day 2, I had to set my expectations! Miguel “moo-ed” in the back of the classroom. They worked in groups. We talked about the Salem Witch Trials (oh, so ironically appropriate). All was somewhat normal.

Second period ended. Passing. I ran to the classroom in the northwest corner of the school (my classroom faced the southeast) and saw that it was true. Both buildings burned. Smoke billowed largely. Holy shit, I thought. Holy freakin’ shit. I raced back to the classroom, herded the students inside, desperately trying to remain composed. Tiffany had forgotten her notebook in another class, and when she asked to get it I told her she could. After all, it was an abnormal morning.  I started the lesson. The students were freaking out. I had the moment I mentioned above of demanding, quite forcefully, to look at the book cover, and then Tiffany returned to the classroom, hysterically sobbing. We were all silent.

“The Tower…it fell down,” she blubbered out to the class. There was a millisecond of pause, and I swear to you as I type this with chills all over my body that we all–every student and myself–felt a seismic shift in our world in that tiny moment before the class erupted into a chorus of questions, exclamations, crying, screaming, kids trying to run out of the room, and I had to be the sane one, the one who was not afraid, the steady voice of reason in a world no longer reasonable. It was so hard. I was terrified. I had never felt so adult. I had never before felt the importance of being the teacher in a room of kids.

After a morning of focus, the rest of the day is blurry. After third period, I had a planning period. By then both Towers had fallen. I went up to the fourth floor (the top floor) of our school to the Assistant Principal’s office, an office that faced the City and saw paper flying everywhere. Sheet after sheet of paper smacked against the window; the windows were all shut to avoid the smell of burning, burning, burning everything. Burning buildings, burning people, burning paper. It was a smell that I will recognize forever.

Somehow we got through that day in my school. The subways and buses were shut down. Students had to walk home for hours after our 3pm dismissal. They were not allowed to leave before that, and we held classes during which students cried, we consoled, and we all sat wondering what was next. Many skipped out of the building through side and back doors, frantic to move towards their homes, however far. But many more spent the whole day with us. Although I had only known them one day before the attack, I was something stable for them to cling to.

Now, years later, every 9/11 I think of the students whom I spent that day with. They were juniors (4 classes) and seniors (1 class). They are grown ups now, some with kids, some in graduate school/medical school, some working. They live all over the country and all over New York City. I am facebook friends with many.  I feel a connection to them unlike any group of students I have taught since. As the years passed and I did my mandatory 9/11 lessons, the students were less and less engaged in the topic. 9/11 was a sad holiday to them, a day during which their City mourned, but they did not mourn. They were children when it happened, and the longer I taught, the younger the younger my students were and the less and less recognition they had for the date. It was sad and strange to think that these young adults’ entire lives had been in a post-9/11 world. They had no personal experiences or memories associated with the date. As my student population shifted, I could no longer use my 9/11 lessons as a way for me to process, yet again, that horrible day. I had to leave that behind and see it differently, I had to see that historical moment in the context of the present and in the eyes of the future generations in order to reach my students.

Maybe, in some ways, that’s for the best.

[This essay was also published in The Huffington Post here.]

2 thoughts on “Being a teacher on 9/11

  1. I remember being in high school on 9/11, and, although I was all the way in Chicago, it still affected us all too. I teach first and second grades now and when I talk about 9/11, most of them haven’t heard of it. None of them were even a twinkle in their parents’ eyes in 2001! It is weird to be in a group of people who has absolutely no memory or even prior knowledge of 9/11.

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