Saturday, September 11, 2010
The above picture is of me in my Baltimore classroom on September 11, 2000. I honestly can't recall much from that particular day, but it would certainly mark my last forgettable 9/11.
One year later on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I welcomed my students into the classroom for first period English 10. Sunlight slanted in through the second-floor windows that overlooked the parking lot, and the pleasant breeze from the windows I had opened cooled my room. As a Baltimore resident, I loved living between New York City and Washington D.C. When my students were all in their seats, I asked them to read the basic sentences on the chalkboard and rewrite them with sensory detail. Then the janitor knocked on my door.
The janitor was an older man with white hair and thick black rim glasses. We enjoyed our occasional conversations together, so I welcomed the interruption. I opened my door and he signaled for me to speak with him in the hallway. His face twitched with worry. I inched out and closed the door behind me.
“We’re under attack,” he whispered. “We’re telling all the teachers. Two planes hit the World Trade Center in New York City. No one really knows what’s going on.”
I stood there in shock and disbelief. In the moment, this information was next to impossible for me to comprehend. I remembered standing on top of the South Tower in 1995 and looking out over the Big Apple. I shook the memory from my thoughts. “Are you sure?”
“Turn on the TV,” he said. “And I’ll tell you another thing, they’ll be sending these kids home pretty soon. You watch.”
I thanked him for sharing the troubling news with me and returned to my classroom. I looked at the simple sentences on the chalkboard. Their grammatical review would have to wait. As I erased the board, I let my students know that we were going to switch gears. I drew up the New York City skyline, and we talked about the Twin Towers. We discussed stocks and the global marketplace. Then I had a decision to make. Should I tell them what I just heard? Should I turn on the TV? Or should I let them find out for themselves? Either way, I could not get the janitor’s ominous news out of my thoughts. So I did what I always do; I told my students the truth insofar as I understood it.
I let my students know that the janitor said two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. My students’ faces were all fairly expressionless. Even I sensed the awkward moment as I heard my own words in my ears. In hindsight, I would have been much more forthright. I would have turned on the TV and directed their full attention to the moment at hand. But in the true moment and without knowing anything but what the janitor told me, I advised my students to make sure they talked to their parents about the news. “An informed society is a stronger society,” I told them. And then I actually returned to my instruction. During the lesson, three worried parents removed their children from my classroom. Everything about that day remains surreal for me.
Near the end of the first period, the janitor’s prediction came true. An alarm sounded over the intercom, and it sounded much like a loud and echoing fax machine. Then the principal said this, “By order of the President of the United States, school will be dismissed promptly after this report.” She told us that two commercial airliners had crashed into the World Trade Center. She said another plane had hit the Pentagon. I could hear the pain in her voice and by the time she finished, she was crying. My students’ faces were all cast in silent panic. They all looked at me. What could I say? What could I do? I spread my hands out and said, “Go home. Stay safe.”
My students charged past me and within minutes they joined in with the chaos of over 2200 students flooding into the parking lot below. I watched the madness from my classroom windows. Most of our students depended on city transportation, and all of them were running away from the school and into the urban landscape. I spent just a few minutes putting the scattered desks and chairs back into orderly rows. Then the Graphic Arts teacher from across the hall came into my room, wide-eyed.
“They came down,” he said. “Both towers. They just came straight down.” I went to his room and we watched the news coverage. Horrified, we watched as the people of New York suffered through this massive whiteout. I could barely believe my eyes and ears. I began to think of all the people that must have died in the collapse of the towers. I thought of the people who died on the planes. I thought of the inevitable deaths at the Pentagon. I heard about a plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. I cupped my nose and mouth with my hands as I watched the TV. What started out as a beautiful September morning had suddenly become a most terrible time, a day of death for many of my fellow human beings.
After being dismissed from school, I went back to my apartment and turned on the TV in my family room. I basically camped out there for the rest of the day and night. I struggled to understand as the reporters tried to piece the puzzle together. I had no idea who did this or why. What I did know was that my imagination was probably right. I imagined the firemen who lost their lives, racing into the burning towers with hopes of helping anyone trapped. I imagined their faces and their lifeworks. I imagined the mortified pilots when they knew they would not be able to protect their passengers and crew. I imagined all those at the Pentagon who work to protect America. I imagined them being arrested in terrible shock. I imagined how the passengers of Flight 93 must have panicked when they realized that their lives would soon end. And I imagined how they felt when they downed the hijacked plane in a Pennsylvania field in a gesture of selfless love to spare the lives of other innocents. I imagined all the life that had been so quickly and cruelly taken.
What I could not imagine was why anyone would do this to these people. The TV images were unimaginable. I saw a fire engine buried in rubble with only the front end showing and its lights still swirling. I saw so many people limping from the scene with their heads and shoulders covered in blasts of debris. I heard the shrill screaming of the motion sensors affixed to the immovable firemen. Why did anyone do this to any of these human beings? For whatever reasons the perpetrators had, their miserable produce is utterly shameful.
As the years go by and as our bodies grow old and weak, I think we need to remember the simple fact that human life is fragile and precious. We are intricate. Miraculous. My heart will always sing for those who died without warning on that most sad September morning. If eternity is true, then I will stand with my fallen brethren forever.
I dedicate this post to the victims of 9/11 and to their families.