(This post was mostly written yesterday morning, 9/11/21.)
Twenty years ago today, at almost this exact time — 9am, I was standing in front of a small class of seventh and eighth graders. The final bell signaling the start of the day had just wrung. I was new to that school, having just transferred from a different assignment; but we were all rather new considering the school year had only started a week or so prior. A teacher from across the hall came to the door that day and simply said, “You might want to turn on the television, something important has just happened.”
I did not intend to write this post and tell this story, but his morning I found myself unable to think of other things. It was hard, of course, not to think of 9/11/2001 in recent days. The television, newspapers and radio that I peruse has been full of it, and rightly so. What really got me reflecting is that, once again, I was going to be standing in front of many young and impressionable minds, the day before –a Friday– this tragedy’s 20th anniversary. What should I say to them about it?
Sadly, I chose to say Nothing! I considered talking to them of it; they were not even born in ’01; I felt I had an obligation. And it would have been a difficult discussion. The students at the high school, at which I am now substitute teaching on a long term assignment, are not a highly sophisticated group, but they are a diverse group. We have a significant population of Muslim students and a significant group of working class white students who come from politically conservative families (when these families choose to be political at all.) I wish the current situation was more ideal. I would have liked to try it. Imagine attempting to explain the religious background of this historical event.
But our current situation is far from ideal. I am at my maximum in work and issues. In my 8th period class, out of 22, 15 were not present, but of those absent, 4 were out for reasons not of sickness or quarantine. Our high schoolers are encouraged to wear masks but only middle schoolers and lower are required to mask by our district. I am occasionally called by administrators and asked to look back at my notes and try to recount to them who was in contact or near or wearing a mask in the vicinity of a particular student now positively Corona-tested. And those students that are frequently attending, many of them are not re-adjusting well to a return to full-time learning. Motivation and on-task behavior are a frequent issue. I am teaching mostly juniors in their English class, and they have not had a normal and uninterrupted school year since their 8th grade year!
So, I chose not to mention 9/11 and no student did either. We have enough of our own tragedies today.
But, 20 years ago, we did not. Why did I turn on the television that day 20 years ago? I was teaching a Special Education class that was composed of mostly a small group of boys with ADHD, anger issues, non-compliance, and less severe autism. I have often thought since then, why did I so automatically just tune in? I think I had the confidence that I could walk them through whatever was happening.
No sooner than we tuned in, and no sooner than I was explaining that it was a terrorist attack, The Second Plane came curving into sight and crashed into the second tower! We sat in shock and watched, as did much of the rest of the nation!
My students handled it well, and I talked and explained and re-assured them for many hours that day. We did not watch the reporting for the entire school day, and an hour or two in, I decided to attempt to return to some normal school activities. I told my students, that is what we must do, that “the terrorists want us to panic and stop doing what we should do.” That went really well, those young guys rose to the occasion.
There are two things that stand out in my memory from the rest of that day. First, throughout the day as we sat trying to focus on school work, the PA system began to increasingly interrupt us calling individual students to go to the office for dismissal. Parents were taking their kids home. Kids were calling home asking to be removed. By the end of the day, it was strange sitting there and talking to the students who remained, many of whom were kids in my room (thus part of the nature of Special Ed — families a little bit different).
Secondly, I remember a comment by one of my students, a rather highly-charged eighth grader This special ed. class had what is called, “a levels system.” It was to monitor good behavior and reward increasing or decreasing opportunities according to performance. “Level 1” was the lowest level for students needing the most guidance, the most structure, the most care. They were not even allowed to walk down the hall alone to the fountain, an adult had to escort them. After watching and discussing the tragedy for quite awhile, his comment was “I feel like I want to be on Level 1.” My response was, “Joey, I think we all feel that way.” Indeed, in the days of that tragedy 20 years ago, we all needed extra care, extra guidance and whatever additional security we could find. Today’s world feels a bit the same.