Reflections on September 11th

As we approach 9/11, I find myself a little listless and somewhat lonely. Until the towers fell, I experienced 9/11 just the way most people on the West Coast did – seeing the coverage, horrified to think of the trauma, stretching to wrap my mind around it – but all of that shifted dramatically. The phone rang as the second tower collapsed; it was from the Chancellor’s office, asking that I come to NYC to help the schools. In a heartbeat, the images on television shifted my mind from theoretical to threat. From philosophical to fear. From abstract to anxiety. Although I couldn’t have imagined saying “no” to a request for help, neither could I imagine whether there were cars on streets or grocery stores open. I wondered if taxis were still running. It is difficult to remember how little we really knew in those early days, and how all of the coverage of New York was of the devastation. After seeing what, literally, had come down, it was almost impossible to imagine what might still be standing.

I spent much of the next two years working with schools in lower Manhattan, New York and in New Jersey. Just across the George Washington Bridge, hundreds of families lost the head of household when the towers collapsed. Many people with high paying jobs in Manhattan chose to live where they could have a swing set in the yard and a quiet street for the kids to learn to ride bikes. The needs were, for the most part, very distinct, and very different between the two settings. New York was more about the trauma of personal survival and running for one’s life. New Jersey was about the horror of how beloved family members had died. In just one school where I worked, five staff and thirteen students lost a primary family member. Unfathomable.

We hadn’t yet figured out the new normal when the next wave of terror arrived – anthrax. All of the mail from the Department of Education in New Jersey passed through the mail station that had tainted letters, and lower Manhattan’s post office was involved as well. For that crisis, people on both sides of the Hudson had very similar responses. They were issued rubber gloves, masks and plastic aprons for opening the mail.

These major crises were the tidal waves in a turbulent sea of moment-to-moment anxiety, like when someone on the subway would panic and begin screaming that we were all going to die of sarin gas. One night in my hotel room bed I realized that the fighter jets flying grid over the city had changed direction and I was certain it meant another attack was imminent. After 20 minutes of controlled panic, I realized I was in a different hotel room than the prior night. This bed was oriented north/south instead of east/west. I wished at that moment that figuring that out would be enough to let me drift off easily to sleep…

In those two years of responding and the many returning trips providing workshops, I’ve held tight to my little group of “New York sistas” – about half a dozen women – teachers, administrators and counselors – who became my bosom buddies – my network – my lifeline to a whisper of sanity amidst the chaos. We still often get together for dinner when I’m back east.

So returning to Oregon after living out a couple of years of all of that was perhaps just a little like coming home from the peace corps or being on the fringe of a war zone… no one “back home” had shared the experience, so nobody had a frame of reference for relating or for actual conversation. None of my beloveds here had a really personal connection. That has made those women from New York all the more important through the years. They each have their survival stories from that day, but one in particular catches in my throat even now.

Fast forward to this tenth anniversary. It is difficult to find myself on the west coast for this particular anniversary. Still, I am appreciating that organizers for our 9/11 commemoration in little Salem, Oregon have created an incredible display of 5,000 flags in our waterfront park. Lit all night, there is one there for each person who died working in the towers, each who died responding to the towers, each fire fighter and police person who has died in the line of duty in Oregon since 9/11, and all from Oregon in the military who have died in wars since 9/11. Although I see 9/11 as being about something much larger than flags, patriotism, or our national boundaries, it is nonetheless an incredible and beautiful display taking up acres of lawn. Especially under the night lights, it is awe inspiring. Wandering through the collage of it all, it is difficult to find the moment when I’ve read enough names on the 9/11 flags and reflected on enough name plates of firemen. It is difficult to know how many times to find the name of the real sister of one of my beloved “New York sistas” – Ada’s sister – Wendy Alice Rosario Wakeford. There is a place on that flag that is just theirs.

In the midst of my feelings of isolation about this, I decided that I really wanted to reach at least one group here in Oregon – those with whom I sing in a choir – in a way that could allow them to have some personal connection with 9/11. So I invited them to join me in a place that is just beside the tributes for the responders who died.

I asked how many were currently or had been teachers or worked in schools. Nearly half of the choir raised hands! (We have lots of music teachers in our choir.) Then I asked who all had ever HAD a teacher, which of course brought in everyone. I recalled how, early in my work in NYC, someone mentioned that there are 1.2 million children in NYC schools, and that there were nearly 30 schools that had to evacuate that day from in or around Ground Zero. No one came to tell the principals that the fire couldn’t be put out and that things wouldn’t be getting better. No one came to help them leave. So schools waited until after the towers collapsed and then had to evacuate in the midst of that deluge of smoke and roiling debris, and the falling, burning bits of computers and phones and chairs… and people.

I recalled that, not long after I began my work in NYC, comments began to be made about the miracle it was that all school children made it out of their schools alive and with almost no injuries. But I see it a little differently. I know that not one single group of students was abandoned by their teachers and staff. Students survived because teachers and staff had the courage and tenacity to walk those kids through all of that mayhem to safety. In a different application of the phrase – and in a very real sense – no child was left behind on 9/11. I still marvel at the stories of teachers whose spouses showed up and begged them to run for their lives, and those teachers implored their spouses to carry kids so the class could move faster. I tear up thinking of the stories of kindergarten teachers, whose students were the tiniest of all and had only experienced five days of school. They admonished their students not to let go of the hand they were holding no matter what. They led their classes, snaking through smoke so thick they couldn’t see the back end of the line, steadily moving forward on faith. Many of the teachers in those schools were first-year teachers, so this was their fifth day of teaching! I shiver to think of the “what ifs” like the one school that had a classroom with a teacher and students who were all deaf and who didn’t hear the all-call to evacuate, and of the one staff person who realized it after she’d left the building and went back….

None of those students in lower Manhattan made it out because of the actions of someone. They made it out because of the actions of everyone.

I invited my fellow choir members, and I invite all of you, to think back to a teacher that you had – no, to think back to every teacher that you had – and reflect for a moment on the likelihood that, even those teachers you didn’t like all that well would have done the same for you. Make it personal by reflecting on the incredible role teachers played in the development of who you became, and by recognizing that, at the time, we didn’t recognize how much they were really doing for us that went far beyond academics.

So on this decade anniversary, I celebrate their actions that day as a demonstration of the unspoken pledge that teachers take that goes way beyond “that we’ll teach” and lands squarely on “that we’ll protect” at a most basic level. Military people go to war and fight alongside a team of people who are all trained, who are all looking out for themselves and for one another. On 9/11, teachers and school staff left their buildings and walked into the war zone, fulfilling their responsibility to care for a whole classroom of kids who hadn’t had any training and didn’t know their part in looking out for one another or taking care of themselves. And they all got out – together.

I see it not as a miracle, but as a tribute to raw courage in the face of unparalleled threat. Unsung heroes among us. Everyday people who did extraordinary things. So to make it personal, as we pay tribute to those who lost their lives – victims and first responders – we can also pay tribute to those teachers of that place on that day in New York, and secondarily, to all of our teachers and school staff who, unknowingly, likely took that same unspoken pledge.

I am privileged to come in to the aftermath of these events and hear these stories of resolute spirit and raw determination. I am awestruck by their strength and tenacity. I am grateful for their bravery and their mettle. Having this window into their lives leaves me absolutely certain: I have the best job in the world.

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