Ten years ago today, I was just getting to know a new crop of students. It was my 8th year of teaching high school English; I had four sections of senior English 12 and one section of English 9. My English 9 class was a “team” class, which means that there was a special education teacher in the classroom with me as it was an inclusion class. Some of the students had learning difficulties ranging from ADHD to behavioral issues.
Hubby and I lived in Alexandria, VA, a suburb of Washington, D.C., which is located about 10 miles southwest of the Pentagon. It was a prime location for us because we were almost exactly halfway between each of our places of employment; he in McLean, VA, and I in Woodbridge, VA. Because the D.C. suburbs span such a large area, many people in Northern Virginia hold government jobs, either in the city, or at the Pentagon, or at various military bases. It never occurred to me that living in or around our Nation’s Capital would pose a security risk.
Yes, it was an absolutely gorgeous day – one of those days you wish you could spend outside, but I was also filled with the excitement of beginning a new school year. First period came and went without incident, and soon enough it was time for my freshmen to arrive. Everything was status quo and while they were busy working on an assignment (diligently hanging on to my every educational word and obediently following my instruction . . . because this is MY version of events,) I told my team teacher that I needed to run to the copy center.
Intent on my task, I walked into the copy center and was focused on getting back to class quickly. But then I noticed the attendant staring at the TV on the wall. I glared at the TV when she said, “someone just flew two planes into the World Trade Center!”
My first thought was that some jackass had been flying too close and didn’t see the giant building in front of him, or that the pilot was someone who had the GED equivalent of a pilot’s license and should not have been flying in the first place, a la John Denver. (God rest his soul.)
“Was it an accident?” I asked, even as I tried to grasp the concept that TWO planes had crashed. It just didn’t make any sense.
“It couldn’t have been an accident,” she replied, still staring at the news footage that was repeating images of the fireballs emanating from the buildings.
I walked back to class, stunned. I walked into my classroom and held my papers to my mouth, all stealth-like, like football coaches who know the Jumbo Tron is focused on them and don’t want lip-readers to figure out their next move.
“Two planes have just crashed into the World Trade Center in New York,” I whispered.
“My daughter is in New York,” she gasped.
We kept the students busy at their desks while we huddled at my computer and pulled up cnn.com. My email was already up and running (which I know is no surprise to many of my colleagues) so, using my email account, we emailed Debbie’s daughter at work in New York and anxiously waited for a reply. Luckily, within the hour, her daughter responded and said that she was okay, but that they were evacuating and she’d be in touch as soon as possible. Of course, we didn’t know at the time that communication would come to a stand-still as people all over the country tried to reach their loved ones.
My department head and good friend, Lisa, stopped at every classroom and announced that we would be getting out of school early. I remember calmly telling my students about the planes in New York and that we had recently found out the Pentagon had also been attacked. One student, whose name I will never forget, said, “I don’t mean to be mean, but who cares?” I thought to myself, one day when/if he matures, he’ll regret EVER saying that.
“I do,” I said. It’s the human way to feel, I thought, but all I said was “some of your classmates may have family or friends working at the Pentagon.” Still, though many of them were shocked, they were generally excited to be getting out of school early. This reaction bothered me at the time, but in hindsight I realize they didn’t know how to feel. Nothing like this had happened in my lifetime; it certainly hadn’t happened in theirs. Once they were released, the principal came over the loud speaker and told his staff to “go home and be with your families.”
I worried about Hubby, as I wasn’t sure if he was in his office in McLean or at a client site in the city. Finally he emailed and said he was leaving the office in McLean and he’d meet me at home. I drove home in stunned silence while listening to news coverage. Traffic began to get increasingly heavier as I traveled 95 North towards home, and I noticed as traffic slowed that all the other drivers on the road had the same somber expression. As I approached my exit I stared at thick black smoke above the trees in the direction of the Pentagon. This is really happening, I thought.
|Raising the flag at Capon Springs, WV with P&P's sons|
(an important rite of passage the year children turn
5-years-old and can understand why we respect the flag.)
Later that evening, we gathered at the home of our good friends, P & P. What was once planned as a birthday celebration with close friends was now a group of us sitting around the TV in their kitchen, sharing stories of office evacuations and soldiers with assault rifles along the highway commute.
Normally I am an emotional nightmare. I can’t stand to see other people cry and my family teases me about being a pillar of strength in times of crisis.
I didn’t cry for days.
I watched television footage every hour I was awake, and though my mind was spinning, I did not cry.
Upon returning to school a couple days later, I learned that one of my senior’s mother was missing at the Pentagon. Oscar came to school every day ... his family was one of profound faith and his father wanted his sons to maintain as much normalcy as possible. Days passed. Then a week. Finally his mother was identified and they were able to lay her to rest. I so admired his strength and perseverance, and I think of Oscar and his family often.
Then my meltdown happened. (And it was way bigger than my normal quarterly meltdown.) I sobbed uncontrollably and could not reign in my emotions. I cried for Oscar. I cried for ALL those people in New York. I cried for first responders, and caregivers, and families who were seeking loved ones; I cried for my country and for what once was; and I prayed my president would have the strength to lead in a time of absolute crisis. I questioned whether I wanted to start a family, even though Hubby and I had been discussing it for some time. Is it fair to bring a child into a world where so much evil exists? I hadn’t realized . . . I mean really realized, that EVIL is a real thing and it exists.
I cried when I watched the news. I cried when I saw an American flag. I cried when I heard stories of how my country was mourning. And though I never talk politics and I feel very strongly that each citizen is entitled to his/her opinion regardless of how anyone else feels about it, I must say that I supported my president. Hubby and I are a bipartisan family and we vote on different issues. But in a culture of divisiveness, I placed my faith and my respect in my president and his decisions. (Even though I didn’t vote for him and I think Will Ferrell impressions are hilarious. The end.)
For the past few weeks, my boys have been asking about 9/11 and we have tried to explain as best we can without being too sensationalistic or the-world-is-coming-to-an-endish. Helping my children understand has made me realize just how much our country has changed in the past 10 years.
To Large and Medium, airport security has always been intense. (One of the greatest joys in life? Going through security with an infant in the baby Bjorn and carrying-on all the accoutrements that said infant will need on a flight. You can’t wear the Bjorn through the scanner, and security personnel are not allowed to hold your infant for you. Good times.) To them, schools have always required photo identification for visitors and museums have always checked Mommy’s bag.
On the flip side . . . and I have to believe SOME good can come out of this situation . . . I love seeing flags hang outside my neighbors’ homes, and though a military funeral is always tragic, there’s something beautiful about the ceremony and reverence afforded our veterans. I feel such respect and gratitude when I see a flag-covered coffin carried by white-gloved hands. Our boys know and sing the Star Spangled Banner. They don’t get all the words right and their tone is at times, um, deafening, but they belt it out with pride. And I have to say, seeing my babies remove their hats and put their hands on their little hearts gives me goose bumps EVERY time.
God bless America, today and every day.