“You will remain on my mind and in my heart forever.”
A personal account of 9/11 from a Brooklyn, 6th grade science teacher.
The morning of September 11, 2001, I was prepping my classroom in Brooklyn, NY for my 6th grade science students. As a new teacher, I was giddy with excitement to introduce a new lesson I had been developing all summer and equally ridden with fear that they would squash the lesson with disruptive behavior. The summer heat had not completely broken, leaving the room warm and stuffy. I threw open the windows and took a moment to admire the bright blue sky and cooling breeze as my students bounded into the classroom.
Roll call, homework check, bathroom pass, textbook distribution, one demerit, another bathroom pass and finally, we could start the lesson. Just as I was finally grabbing their attention by producing several Japanese fighting fish, a cloud of smoke and small debris floated through the windows. Instantly, every student rose from their seat to investigate the disturbance. “Get back to your seats!” I demanded as I cautiously walked to the windows. I assumed it was simply a mishap from a construction site below and began closing the windows to a rising chorus of groans, “But it’s so hot in here!”
Seth Low Middle School, (IS 96 for the Brooklyn natives), was a low-budget, bare bones, intermediate school in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, located only 15 miles from Manhattan. We did not have televisions in the classrooms; nor did we have Internet or smartphones. One by one, students were called from the classroom to report to the office because their parents had arrived to take them home. The hairs on the back of my head rose and my stomach dropped. I knew something was wrong. You see, in Bensonhurst, parents do not come to the school. Brooklyn students used the subway, bus system or walked to-and-from school. You’d be lucky to get a parent on the phone and, if they show up for a parent-teacher conference, well, you just won the lottery.
After about an hour of students departing one by one, the Assistant Principal began walking to each classroom, pulling each teacher into the hallway and, with an eerie calm, stating, “There has been an incident at the Twin Towers. Remain calm and continue teaching.” I was a NY transplant and did not have any family, friends or loved ones working in the towers. However, almost every other teacher at Seth Low did have someone either working in the towers or financial district. To this day, I will never know how they pulled it together and continued teaching as I’m sure their minds were racing with dreadful images.
Soon, the entire school was evacuated and most of the staff dispersed to the nearest television to finally catch a glimpse of what happened. I remained glued to the set for what felt like hours as my mind tried to comprehend what my eyes were processing. Although 9/11 marked a day of extraordinary tragedy, my struggle began the day I returned to the classroom and the questions began. “Why did this happen?’ “Who is responsible?” “Are they going to hit our school next?” Some students would just burst into tears in a school where you learned early on never to show emotion. Students who wore a keffiyeh, a traditional Arab headdress, or hijab, a traditional female Muslim headdress, were persecuted relentlessly. Hatred and fear monopolized the school’s atmosphere. I soon realized that, although I could not rebuild the towers, I had an opportunity to rebuild my classroom by educating my students and allowing them an open forum to voice their fears, concerns and questions. Little by little, and sometimes at a painfully slow pace, each student woke from the oppression of 9/11. By the end of the school year, I knew we were on the right track again when one of my Asian students, Ming, awkwardly asked Aamina, one of my Arab girls, if he could walk her to the subway station after school.
|I learned more from my students during that year than I believe I ever taught them. My students, my heroes, remain on my mind and in my heart every day. I hope your personal journey, after one of our nation’s most tragic days, has led you to find peace, hope and your heroes.|