Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering 9-11

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I rose at 4:00a.m., walked the dogs, read the local paper while I had a cup of tea, and then got ready for work. What was unusual for me that day was that I didn’t turn on the radio while getting dressed after my shower. Something—whatever it was—had me deep in thought that day. I have no idea what it was.

Finally, as I rolled out of the driveway and headed to work, I tuned in to an L.A.-based AM news station, KFWB. ‘We are getting initial reports that planes have hit #1 and #2 towers of the World Trade Center….’ What? Wait. What? I found myself leaning forward, turning up the volume. I tried to imagine the scenario; a military training mission gone horribly wrong? Did he say “planes”? Both towers? The standard program formatting of news-weather-traffic-sports had been suspended. The station managers in Los Angeles were trying desperately to connect with eyewitnesses across the country, trying to verify wire service reports that seemed impossible to believe.

I was halfway to work when they went live with a reporter on the ground in New York City. His first report: One of the Twin Towers had collapsed.

“What?” This time I said it aloud. I was certain what he’d heard was in error, that people were overreacting to some big explosion, that the news anchors would update the story soon to assure everyone that the building was still standing.

And then came the report that the second tower had collapsed. I’d been driving at a snail’s pace, trying to hear as much as I could before I got to work. Now my foot hit the accelerator and I sped to Jurupa Valley High School, where I taught at the time. Immediately upon arriving, I headed for the teacher’s lounge to validate what I was hearing. Someone had brought in a cart with a TV. Teachers were gathered around it, watching in horror. Some were crying. No one spoke. We watched until the bell dispersed us.

On the way to class, I stopped by the principal’s office to ask if I could bring students to the lounge during the third period of the day—my Journalism class. Yes, I was told, as long as they were respectful.

Several students were absent in my first period class. I suspended my planned lesson.

“Are you alright?” I asked my freshmen. “You aren’t scared, are you?”

Yes, they told me candidly. They were frightened and worried and rumors had already spread across campus that the L.A. area would be targeted next. I spent the hour reassuring them, told them what I’d heard already of flights across the country being canceled, airports and train stations shut down. While I spoke calmly to them my heart was racing. My son worked in the L.A. area. I hadn’t heard from him.

“We’re going to be alright here,” I told them, hoping that what I told them was the truth. We had a similar discussion in Period 2. At some point in the first hours, my daughter called my classroom, and she told me she’d been watching the scenes on television. I remember needing to hang up, to get back to my class, but not wanting to sever the connection between us. We weren’t really saying anything other than how horrible it all was, but as long as I could hear her voice, I knew that she was safe.

When my Journalism students arrived, I explained that we’d been given special permission to sit in the lounge for the class period and watch the news coverage, assuring them that they weren’t required to stay if what they saw was too disturbing. I warned them to be respectful of the teachers who would be seeking sanctuary in their grief.

We filed in without saying a word, found seats and sat glued to the horrific images for nearly an hour. Behind me, I could hear the heavy door open and close behind me as others came in to watch, but not a single word was spoken during the hour. Someone at the back of the room was crying. It was the only sound we heard apart from the stunned voices of the reporters. When the bell rang, my students picked up their backpacks and walked out silently.

Somehow, we all kept putting one foot in front of the other to make it through that day. My teacher-heroes set aside their mathematics and literature and science lessons for the day and simply talked to their students about history and war and the meaning of terrorism.

At home finally, I gathered with my own children around the television and we continued watching for hours. By now, stories of heroism and tragedy were being documented. And the news clips of relatives looking for loved ones were being broadcast. We watched… and cried… and watched… and I told them they might have to sleep on the living room floor with me, as I didn’t think I could bear to let them out of my sight. Finally, though, I went to my room because as a writer, I felt I needed to document what had happened and my response to it. I sat with pen in hand, staring at a blank page until I fell asleep from exhaustion.

I didn’t write about the attack until four days later. I couldn’t. Sometimes the sadness simply goes too deep to be gotten at with words. I spent the first days playing my guitar, singing songs of grief… and hope… and trying to process the insanity of it.

Of course, the event changed me, as it changed most of us.

In the weeks following, I wrote countless emails to close friends. I used the words “I love and appreciate you” over and over. I wanted my friends to know how much they meant to me… just in case.

And when I went to work each day, I told my students that I loved them. I have continued to do so since that time. Looking into their faces on September 11th, seeing the fear and anxiety there, hearing their stories of teachers who had hugged them or put an arm around them or told them they were safe here inspired me to work harder to let every student know; I will do my best to keep you safe in mind and spirit and body. It is a powerful responsibility we have been charged with as teachers, and I take it more seriously now than I ever have.

I invite you to comment here with your own remembrance of the day... lest we ever forget....