Where were you on September 11, 2021?
If you ask anyone over the age of forty where they were on the events of September 11th, you might receive one of any typical answers that illustrate an average day. I was walking my dog. I was dropping off my dry cleaning. I had just finished up an early meeting. But, if you were to ask one of the fifty million US citizens between the ages of 25 and 40 right now where they were on September 11, most of them would give you the exact same answer; I was in school.
For US school children, what started as an average Tuesday morning quickly became dominated by aged-television monitors projecting visuals of New York City and masses of people trying to make sense of a plane crash in Lower Manhattan. As the news continued to cover the story, however, another plane crashes into the next tower, and it becomes clear that the events were intentional. In a matter of an hour air traffic ceased, commerce stopped, and the moment was met with a collective, global hush. Silence.
Seasoned journalists who had covered some of the most riveting and emotional times in our nation’s history searched for words that did not exist to explain the event. The President of the United States, in a classroom himself at the time of the attack, was filmed staring blindly at the floor knowing that he would have to navigate a response. For elementary-aged children, they could not have been less familiar with Afghan-US relations after the Cold War; many of them could not likely point out the Middle East on a map. However, middle schoolers and high-school-aged students were included, watching, processing, and questioning. Regardless of the age of the child, they and their families learned the definition of terrorism that day, and that the safety and security they had always enjoyed in this country, was not exempt from its reach.
Like so many unpredicted and crucial historical events that shake us to our fundamental cores, the first cogent explanation and the first warm embrace that a student might get comes from a teacher. My grandmother was in school when it was shut down for weeks during World War II, my parents were in school when their teacher announced the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and I was in a course on the Federalist Papers on September 11th when my professor had to walk two students to his office to call their families in New York.
As an educator myself I always think about the New York City teachers who were teaching that day. The teachers who knew that those students’ lives would forever be changed in that moment. What did they say to them? How did they comfort them? I imagine there were a myriad of conversations that took place, each teacher trying to comfort each child in a way that resonated with them as an individual student. Since the inception of school, teachers have served as a filter between their students and the world events happening around them. And while there is arguably no substitute for a trusted guardian in moments like these, the surrogate duties of a teacher on days like September 11th give us peace. They give us peace in that instance, but also later in life when we recall their calm and their steadfastness in when we feel scared, overwhelmed, or like we can’t find the answer. I am not certain, but I would bet that many of the voices these, now adults, still hear when they recall the events of September 11th belong to a teacher.
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