September 11, 2001 was a school day. I was at Ballantrae P.S., teaching grade 7 and had an early morning prep period. So I was alone when one of the caretakers approached me and had me go down to the custodian’s office where they had a TV plugged into the one cable outlet in the building. He looked frightened when he came to my room, talking about the U.S. being attacked. My first thought was that he was exaggerating, but when I went saw the images of the two World Trade Center Towers on fire, and saw the repeated footage of the planes flying into them, I experienced a chill. Soon news of the other two planes came in, although it was all very confused at first. The idea of the Pentagon being targeted was particularly ominous. The voice tone of the the newscasters was perhaps the most disturbing thing. You could hear the fear in their voices.
At this point, nobody knew who the attackers were and nobody really considered terrorism on that scale. Nobody knew what was going to be next? Where there other attacks to be expected? Now we know the names Al Qaida and Osama Bin Laden, but then the feeling was that it could be anyone, even another country. That was one of the most scary things about it. Once the news came out that it was an isolated terrorist attack, it was actually a lot less scary.
I’ve always been the kind of person who felt that the sky could fall at any time. Between nuclear weapons and environmental disasters, I always felt that we were playing with danger and that it was only a matter of time before something serious burst the seams to affect us all. That was the chill I was feeling. “Here we go,” I thought. It was the same kind of chill that one would get if a doctor told you that you had a serious disease. You knew that it was a pivotal moment that was going to change things, -but to what degree?
Ten years ago the school had no cable in the classroom and the Internet was new and slow. In fact, the Internet went offline that morning, probably due to maxed out usage. No students carried cell phones or i-Pods, and none of our students went home for lunch. I went to the principal to discuss how we were going to deal with the crisis and decided that we were not going to tell the students in order to try to prevent any domino emotional cascade. We were not really keeping information from them, because there was a real sense of not knowing what was going on. To present a bunch of scary uncertainties to children just seemed to be wrong.
So I went to each teacher and gave them a brief report. Some classes had radios, and I suggested that they remain off. We continued teaching that day, but I remember being numb throughout. I don’t think that the students ever suspected anything and the news was successfully kept quiet for the whole day. I’m sure that would not be possible now. In my class, just as they were dismissed, I told them that something important had happened in the U.S. that day and that they should talk to their parents when they got home.
The teachers then had an opportunity to get together to think about and talk about how we would deal with the situation on the following day.
I know that there were some schools where the children watched the events unfold on TVs in the classroom, and I’ve often wondered whether we’d deprived our students of experiencing history. But, even if it had been possible, which it wasn’t, I’m not convinced that it would have been wise with all the uncertainty. Years before, I’d been in a classroom with students watching as the space shuttle blew up. The shock and grief was strong enough on that day. Just a year or two before 9/11 we’d had a student’s mother killed in a car accident one day and we elected to tell the older students because they were close to the family. While entirely appropriate, the grief and panic that cascaded through the classes was amplified by the gathering of so many children in one place. We didn’t want to repeat that mistake.
The scope of the tragedy was horrific enough and the consequences far reaching, but, honestly many of us that morning wondered if it was going to be much worse, possibly the beginning of a war or of more attacks. Well, it was the beginning of a war, but not one that would touch us, at least, directly. As for more attacks, well that was a fear shared by many, which led to countless scares about anthrax and other dangers.
Totally separate from the tragic events of that day is the fantasy that followed it. The fantasy that Iraq and Afghanistan were in some way responsible for the attack and deserved to be invaded and it’s civilians terrorized. The fantasy built on paranoia that led to the suspension of many civil liberties and led to things like all the mailboxes in New York being sealed today to prevent possible bombings (while open, similarly structured waste baskets are right beside them). And, perhaps most unfortunately, led to the fantasy and stereotype that there is an Islamic menace, forgetting that recent history has seen just as many fanatical Christian terrorists as Arab ones. Fanatical elements are found in all religions and ideologies.
Hopefully the remembrances today are honourable closures. Let’s remember the victims with grief and the heroes with honour, and then let’s move on. Let’s concentrate on making the world a better place where factions have fewer reasons to hate each other.