They say All Americans know what they were doing that morning. My memories are here: a new teacher, a worried mother and a robotic urge to continue...
It was my first year with a classroom all to myself (I was the teacher after a long stint as a teacher's aid). I'd spent the last month getting a classroom ready to receive 13 gifted and talented kids who would call the room “my class” for the next year.
That morning my own kids, Vince and Alicia, were getting ready for school and I was trying to not be late- getting ready in my room as quickly as possible. I had agreed be carpool for Justin, another student whose mother worked early downtown. I was busy thinking how I would get my two teenagers mobile, loaded into our van, and pick up Justin - and stay on schedule.
Somehow we were all on time and as we made our way to Justin’s, we were fairly silent. Mornings have never been a chatty time for me - even after two cups of coffee.
My cell phone rang and I answered it – it was Mario.
“Where are you?” he asked. He sounded panicked.
“On my way to pick up Justin,” I said. My first thought was that someone died. My second thought was that he was being called out to some riot or skirmish (he had a high-profile job with the Department of Justice).
I pulled over, dutifully. By the looks on their faces, the kids could hear what their dad was saying. They were attentive to his voice on the other end of my small cell phone, since he was speaking so loudly.
“Okay,” I said as my van idled on a random corner that overlooked the back of Justin’s house.
“The World Trade Center has been hit,” he said. Hit? How? My ears started ringing. Mario’s parents were New Yorkers. My first thought was them, then I needed to know more….
“How?” I asked.
“A plane crashed into the North Tower and then another one crashed into the South Tower,” he said.
In a flash of information that fluttered like confetti in my mind I remembered the attacks years before- the WTC was targeted by Muslim extremists. The Jewish Banking System’s capital was there and things had been heating up between the oil dependent USA and the oil providing Middle East.
That morning we realized how vulnerable we all were.
I could hear a commotion from Mario's side of the phone. “Both Towers have collapsed.”
What did that mean?
I felt slapped in the face, but I faced the kids, who were looking at me. “The World Trade Center was hit by two airplanes,” I said.
“And the Pentagon,” Alicia said. She knew something I didn’t and the news didn’t seem as surprising to her.
“What!?” I asked, panic now in my voice. Mario was still in my ear on my phone. “The Pentagon, too?” I asked both of them.
“YES!” Mario said. “The Pentagon, too.” HE was distracted – I could tell he was watching news reports – probably with others in his office.
“Were you watching TV this morning?” I asked Alicia. Yep…there I was in the middle of a National tragedy, chiding my daughter for breaking the rules that morning in our house: No TV before school.
“Yes,” she answered. I nodded, but I looked back at Vince. The news was surprising to him, but he looked at the clock and then back at me. We were going to be late for school.
“I have to go,” I said to Mario. I was in shock but I knew I had to be there for the kids in my classroom – for their families. I had to pick up Justin. I had to get the kids to their classrooms. I really saw the future as the next half-hour of my life. Pull the car away from the curb, pick up Justin, get to school, get the game plan from our principal....
“I’ll be home as soon as I can,” Mario said, breaking me out of my fog. He was coming home...maybe I would be as well. Either way, we would all soon be home- all of us together. Safe and not safe – together.
Justin knew what was going on and started to talk about it in the van. It gave us all license to speculate what had happened. All of us seemed to know it was a terrorist attack and that this was just the beginning. School would be a good and normal place for all of them to process this thing together - teens need peers to process.
By comparison, I was going to a classroom of kids whose main support were their parents. I would be the “delivery system of normal and safe.” I was trained to be a safe and steady entity as a teacher. Would any of them be there?
We had drills for fire, earthquakes and floods. We even had emergency drills for school shootings now. What we didn’t have was emergency drills for terrorist attacks coming from the sky – no one in the USA did then….
I drove to school, my heart in my throat and a feeling of wariness. I had to get to school. What would I do? What would I say to the kids in my classroom? What had they seen already? What had they heard?
I drove, carefully. I tried to react to everything carefully - I was determined not to have an accident.
I arrived at school, the parking lot bustling with familiar scenes: kids dashing to the halls to chat with each other, parents dropping off...
I knew better than to demand my kids kiss me before they exited the vehicle. I would check on them later....
I walked toward my classroom, hoping to somehow be given direction on how I should conduct myself that morning. I felt very scared and careful.
That feeling didn't go away for about three months.