Thirteen years ago today, September 11, 2001, I woke up early before work to play basketball with some other men at my church. After basketball was over I drove to Kromrey Middle School in Middleton, Wisconsin, where I was a 7th grade science teacher. I taught periods 1, 2, 3, 8 and 9. In between I had meetings, supervision and planning time. At 7:50 am the bell rang and the students entered the building and made their way to their first period class. In Science that day I was giving them their first quiz of the young school year and then preparing them for the next day’s lab. Since all of my science classes included children with varying special needs there was an adult para-educator present each hour. As the 8 am start of the day neared the “para” for 1st hour asked if I’d heard the news about an airplane hitting the World Trade Center in New York City. I was shocked that something like that could happen and had not heard the news since I’d been playing basketball or at work since 5:15 that morning. After the bell rang to start the day and the Pledge of Allegiance and announcements had finished over the speaker I welcomed my students to class and handed out their quizzes. While they were quietly working I quickly retrieved from my storage closet in my classroom the TV/VCR cart that the other 7th grade science teacher and I shared. I placed it near my desk, facing me (away from my students) and turned it on. I was curious to see what was going on in New York. What I saw on the TV screen horrified me. By that time, maybe 8:15 am Central time, both of the WTC towers had been hit by jetliners and black smoke was billowing out of the buildings. The para and I stood there speechless as the network announcers tried to keep their composure, watching along with the rest of us at the unfolding spectacle. Little did we know how much more would happen over the next 90 minutes. We had no idea we were witnessing one of the most significant events in the history of our nation. As my students turned in their completed quizzes they started to watch the news along with me. Once all of them were done, I turned the TV off for a moment and explained, as best I could, what had happened in New York that morning. I made the decision to scrap the rest of that day’s lesson plans and allowed my students to watch the news, as that was clearly of great interest to all of us. Just before the class was to be dismissed American flight 93 slammed into the Pentagon. I think I had NBC on, and they scrambled to show footage as best as they could of both the twin towers and the unfolding scene at the Pentagon. At this point I knew that this would be a day that none of us would ever forget.
8:50 am. Second hour kids entered more quietly than usual. Word had spread that something was happening in New York…and that Mr. Wilke had a TV in his room showing it. Once passing time was over I turned the TV away from the kids and told them that we were going to still go ahead with the quiz but that the rest of the lesson for the day had been scrapped so we could focus on the current events. They seemed to understand and started their quizzes. That gave me an opportunity to glance at the news again. It was about 8:55, and the crew was still in disbelief over the three hijacked planes and the subsequent attacks. They were trying to calmly talk about the rescue efforts going on in both locations when suddenly the South tower of the WTC collapsed. I’m pretty sure I made some sort of gasp or whelp because my students all looked up at me at the same time, wondering what I had just seen. I wondered the exact same thing. What had I just seen? Did that massive building just disintegrate before my very eyes? Oh, dear God, please help them. This is beyond terrible. All I could do was robotically turn the TV to face them so that they could see for themselves what had just happened. The sound was off but the picture was clear. This was destruction that none of us could ever comprehend. I collected their quizzes (I guess, although I don’t really recall doing it) and we all watched together. Then, not even 10 minutes later, United Flight 93 crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. More chaos on the TV. I was only 28 at the time and couldn’t make sense of it. I knew that my students couldn’t either. As the time wound down for second period I did something that I had never done before. I encouraged my students, “If you’re of the persuasion that believes in the power of prayer, now would be a good time.” I told them that I was not saying this as their teacher, but rather, as a fellow human being who was having trouble understanding what was going on. I don’t know if any of them prayed or not. I know that it’s all that I could do at that moment. As that class was being dismissed the second WTC tower collapsed. We all just stood in place for a few moments in stunned silence. Trying to process.
Third hour arrived and quietly took their seats. I made the same announcement as before about the quiz and change of lesson plans. While they worked on the quiz there was a knock on my door followed by a student handing me a note from the office. Apparently, the principal had decided that the tragic events in New York were too much for the 6th, 7th and 8th graders to watch. The note was to all teachers in the building, asking us to refrain from talking about it any more. Don’t show it. Just go about business as usual. Stick to your lesson plans. I ignored it. For the only time in my six years of teaching, I purposely disregarded the wishes of my administrator. There was no way that I could possibly try to stick to my original lesson plan. Not with what was happening. This was historic. This was, in my mind, on par with the Kennedy assassination. Bigger than the Challenger accident. Bigger than the original Gulf War “shock and awe” in 1990. I wanted my students to see this in real time. This was an event that would change America. I showed the para in my class the memo and she agreed with me that we should keep watching. I told my students what the principal had written and explained why I wasn’t complying with his wishes. They began to cheer but I quieted them with a reminder that this wasn’t about me being a rebel but rather about the significance of the moment. I told them
Remember where you are right now. Your kids and grandkids are going to ask you about this some day.
The principal never showed up to check on my classes the rest of the day to see if I was obeying him. That’s not surprising since he only actually came to my room maybe four times in my five years at that school. By the time my 8th hour class arrived there had been no new attacks or developments like there had been in the morning. The kids were still unusually quiet. I believe that the severity and significance of the events earlier in the day were beginning to register with them. The school day ended without anything more significant happening and I was eager to get home to my family.
At that time we only had two daughters, ages 6 and 2. My wife was six weeks from completing her final rotation of Medical School and eight weeks from her due date with our third daughter. As a first grader, my oldest hadn’t heard anything about the day’s events and I was glad for her continued innocence. I guess she picked up on a little bit of the news so we tried to explain to her what had happened. I remember holding my two year old a bit longer that night when I rocked her to sleep in my arms. I’m pretty sure I sang God Bless America while holding her body, tears streaking down my face. Mourning the events of the day, the loss of so many innocent lives and loss of innocence and security for people. We all know how much has changed as a result of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Whether impacted directly through the loss of a loved one to the attacks or indirectly because we’re all part of one country and the human race, we must never forget what happened on that terrible Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Like I told my students 13 years ago, if you’re of the persuasion that believes in the power of prayer, now would (still) be a good time. Please take a moment (or more) today to honor the memory of those who perished, whether they were in the towers, on the planes or on the ground trying to help the victims. Even if you think it’s all too dramatic for your taste or that it somehow doesn’t affect you, at least have the courtesy to be quiet and allow others the space and freedom to remember in their own ways. If you have a memory of that day or a story to tell, please feel free to leave a comment. I’d love to hear what you experienced on this day 13 years ago.
God Bless America