I was teaching a journalism class with 9th and 10th graders when the principal announced that a plane had flown into the World Trade Tower. I turned on our classroom television and we watched the morning unfold there. All classes were in semi-lockdown: remain in the classroom where you are now until we give an "all clear."
I approached this the only way I could think of: we looked at the incident as an unfolding news story. I told the students, "You are living in a remarkable moment in history. This is what you have heard your grandparents talking about when they remember where they were on December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was bombed. THIS is your generation's 'Pearl Harbor' moment." We proceeded to watch, and I asked them as we watched, "From your notes, what elements of newsworthiness are included in this story? Which of the '5 W's + H' can we answer now (who, what, where, when, why, and how)? What will the news stations cover next? Why do you think so?" And so forth as events progressed. The kids were remarkable. Here were 14- and 15-year olds grappling with the deepest event in their lives, and they were analyzing everything as "journalists." They, on their own, determined that the stations would keep running and re-running the footage of the planes hitting the towers; the scenes of panic as the crowds ran away from the site; and the efforts of first responders as they arrived on the scene. They decided that as soon as possible, reporters would flood the area and would interview eye witnesses. When I asked them "What will come next in the coverage? Not today, necessarily, but in the days and weeks to come? What questions will be pursued?" They said, "Blame. They will want to find blame. They want to find who to blame for the attacks, and they want to find out who to blame for allowing the attacks to happen. Then they will want to figure out how not to allow this to happen again, and they will decide on a strategy for how to punish the people who did it."
I don't know exactly what made me turn the moment into a "live news story," but I think mostly it was a way that I could focus their emotions, direct their attention, and make them think logically without becoming fearful themselves. It was my way of protecting them from the raw fear, the tragic horror, and the unthinkable tragedy that was occurring. It worked. Once the lockdown was released and kids went on to other classes, I watched as my senior English students walked in, dazed and afraid. My journalism students had left the room with a sense of understanding and purpose because they had been given a framework into which to judge the day. The seniors came in without any such framework. There was no teaching them about Beowulf on that day. They needed to have time to talk; time to express their emotions as they were developing; and a calm adult who would listen and give them a sense of "you're safe." So I listened and we talked and I listened some more.
What was difficult on a personal note was that my youngest son was off to his first year at college in Ohio. He heard that "a plane crashed just south of Pittsburgh..." and immediately thought of us. Our home is in the southern suburbs of Pittsburgh. He tried over and over and over to call my cell phone, to call our home phone, but the phone service across the nation was a complete snarl until mid-afternoon or later. It was with great relief that he finally reached me in my classroom at about 2:30 and found we were safe.
My oldest son was in Philadelphia, and he was supposed to be flying home that morning. One very early report held that there was a fifth plan unaccounted for, perhaps out of Philadelphia, and it may have been hijacked as well. I was unable to reach him until early evening. His flight had been canceled, and he and another law intern had rented a car to drive back to Pittsburgh. Whew.
It was two weeks later, on a Saturday morning, that I realized that I had not shed a tear yet. And at that moment, all of the tears that hadn't been shed came flowing over me. The tears for our country; for the safety of our sons; for the emotional trauma of the kids at my school; for the families and friends of those lost in the Towers; for the certainty that some of my former students were on the front lines in the disaster, either as up-close observers or as victims (a number of them had moved to New York to build their futures); and for those who had to try the impossible tasks of sorting out what had happened. My shoulders shook and I sobbed uncontrollably for about half an hour. There were spurts of tears later in the day, and it would all well up inside me again and come out in 15-second bursts. And then it was over. My soul, my spirit, my emotions, had faced it and had dealt with it, finally.
And that's what I remember.