I can hardly believe that today is the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the United States. Like many of you, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing that morning. I was teaching 8th grade math at Evans Middle School in Ottumwa, Iowa. I spent most mornings fluttering around my classroom preparing for the day. I shared an accordian-style room divider with our team science teacher, Steve Zimmerman. Steve's morning routine included watching CNN or other morning news, while he prepared for his day. We usually left the curtain open several inches on one side, and would move back and forth between rooms to collaborate.
This morning, Steve stepped into my room. "Kelly, turn on your TV."
I was watching the replay of the first plane as students started entering the room. This particular class was an Honors class and a pretty close group of kids. The typical morning included a lot of joking around and conferring with each other about homework. While I watched the television screen, trying to make sense of what had just happened, they quickly started gathering around me. We were all standing below the TV, mounted near the ceiling, trying to make sense of what was happening.
And then... they showed the second plane. In my mind I thought, "How could two planes accidentally fly into buildings?" My innate sense of human goodness created a fog that my brain had to fight through to truly understand what was happening. Then Steve was at the back curtain. He spoke quietly, "Kelly, did you see that?" I walked toward him. "I think we're under attack," he said.
"Under attack? How could the US be under attack?" I thought. And then the teacher in me turned on. "Ok students, take your seats." We talked briefly as a class about what we saw on television. We decided as a group that we would leave the TV on, but turn the volume down and start checking homework. We did our best to carry on our routine, pausing from time to time to see what newscaster was on and watch repeats. We were almost done discussing the homework when the third plane hit the pentagon.
It was such blur from that point. My class was now in full distress. Within minutes it was announced that all planes had been grounded.
Kris was sitting in the front-center seat. The color had completely drained from his face. "Kris, are you ok?"
"My dad is flying home today from a business meeting in Washington DC. His flight was supposed to leave this morning." Secretly, I wanted to vomit.
"I bet he made it out just fine. Did he have a connecting flight?"
"Yeah, in Chicago."
"I bet he gets to Chicago, and can rent a car to drive the rest of the way home."
Kris and his sister decided to go home and wait for news. He returned later that day. His dad decided not to attend his last meeting so that he could take an early fight home. He made it out of DC before the attacks, arrived safely in Chicago, and had rented a car to drive home.
There was a lot of controversy about whether or not schools should have watched the events unroll that day. My own children were in 1st and 2nd grade. They were aware that something had happened, but were shielded from the details at their school. My students were teenagers, 14-year-olds. We tried to have some "regular business" that day, but everyone was preoccupied with the thought that the US had been attacked. We had students who were physically sick by the events, and had to go home. As teachers, we kept double-checking with each other and our administrators... "How much are you letting them watch? What kinds of conversations are you having?"
As I reflect on the last ten years, I can't even count how many times I have thought of the students in my 1st period class from September 11th. The experience that we shared will forever connect me to them. It's a grounding experience in my teaching career. Whenever I think back to that day and those kids, it reminds me that the most important thing we have to offer as teachers is a human connection. Learning can't happen without it, for the kids... or the adults.