Nine years ago, on one completely unassuming Monday, 8am in the morning Pacific time, I was brushing my teeth and getting ready to teach English to sixth graders (11 to 12 year-olds) at a Jewish school in Southern California when I got a call from my mom asking me if I’d seen what happened on CNN. I never watch TV in the morning, so I hadn’t. She told me what she knew. I didn’t know quite what to do with the information, but we talked about it for a moment, not really knowing what was going on and trying not to speculate too wildly. But I figured that this was something extremely major.
When I arrived at the school that morning, the first thing I noticed was extra security. With so much fear and uncertainty around, there was talk of radical muslims all over America enacting terror attacks on Jews and others, and there had already been a Jewish school in Southern California hit by a lone gunman recently. Some children were crying, begging not to be dropped off at school. They didn’t know what was happening or why, but they wanted to be home, safe.
I certainly didn’t blame them. But in truth, that was an amazingly warm, sympathetic, and supportive place to be. Many of the teachers and employees were Israeli, and had lived through previous terror attacks. They understood the confusion and the shock and were great people to be around.
I, and the other sixth grade English teacher, spent our class time talking about what we knew, trying to lead discussions separating rumor from fact, fear from truth. We both tucked our own shock and anxieties away and focused on making sure that by the time those kids left class, they were calm as we learned what really happened in New York City that morning.
That became the template for how we taught that day. Our classes (I also taught 7th, 8th, and 12th graders, ages 12-14 and 17-18) became quiet rooms to discuss and try to make some sense out of what we were learning as the day progressed. I knew the students were stressed because that’s almost the only day I can remember in which I didn’t have to give out a detention or otherwise reprimand at least one or two kids over the course of the day for being unruly.
When I returned home things got frenzied again, trying to contact friends and relatives who lived near and worked at the World Trade Center buildings began, and it took a long time before we could gain any real sense of perspective. But most of all, I remember teaching that day, hoping I had the strength to be present for those kids, and knowing that this moment was going to be a defining one for a whole lot of kids, all over the country, if not the world.