I've been sewing the last few friendship stars for my autumn village quilt, today. It's all assembly line work, so my mind has wandered back to the memories of September 11, fifteen years ago today.
We each have a story that we'll never forget. My story is a jumble of crystal clear images and hazy, blurred moments, as well. On that day, more than any other, I was acutely aware of the grave responsibility teachers have for the emotional needs of students. What we say can have an profound, long lasting effect on the children we teach.
It was a beautiful September morning and only a few weeks into the school year. As usual, I had come in early to set my classroom up for the day.
Did I have my television on while I worked? I don't think I did, but I'm not sure. My room was close to the office and to the front building entrance. When the news reached the school, my room, with the unlocked door and a television, filled with office personnel and incoming staff. We watched the scene unfolding on the screen, in absolute shock and horror. Who could even begin to comprehend that an airplane had truly flown right into the Trade Center? And then the second plane and the second impact. It was real.
We stood glued to the news as students began arriving and gathering by the entry doors. There was no protocol for how to handle a situation like this, and we didn't have time for a staff meeting. It was quickly decided that grade level teams of teachers would know best how to react to the needs of the students in their care. We were on our own. Primary students mainly needed to be assured that they were safe. My sixth graders, though, would need more actual information rather than less.
The bell rang, and students poured into the room. Everyone seemed to be talking at once. Rumors had spread rapidly before school. Information and misinformation and flown from one child to another. Some of the children were excited, others were panicked, several thought it was a stunt like in the movies, and one was in tears. I was bombarded with questions.
"Is it true?"
"Was it an accident?"
"Are we in a war?
"Did everybody die?"
"Who was it?"
"Are they coming here?
"Are we going to die?"
"Are they going to close the school?"
I know that I tried to answer their questions, but no one had very much accurate information at this point. I reassured the children, tried to impress upon them that they were safe. When my class went off to P.E. I caught up on the latest news. So many questions would not be answered for days and even weeks ahead.
When the students returned to class I shared what I knew with them. The buildings had fallen, all air traffic had been grounded, the president was on his way to the air force base near Omaha. He would be only 50 miles from Lincoln. Knowing that the president would be in Nebraska was comforting to some of the children. The president wouldn't be taken someplace where he'd be in danger.
How much actual news did I share? The words I used escape me. What did I say to help these preteens comprehend, yet to comfort and calm them? I know I was honest, but reassuring, and that somehow, in spite of events, the class was very calm. I do remember that students listened to me and to each other without interruption. It was one of the quietest days in my teaching career.
The events of that horrible day had a profound effect on all of us. Within the classroom I saw an unusual level of maturity that year. I saw children become more considerate of each other. More caring. Our class members drew together, and this became the year that we were a family.