I was a teacher in NYC in one of the five schools that were local to the twin towers. 9/11 had been my second day teaching ESL at PS 89 in Battery Park City. Due to the nature of my type of position, my time was split between that location and another elementary school located in Hells Kitchen.
That Tuesday morning was a gorgeous day just right for boots with a nice heel. The plan was to take the subway back and forth between the two schools returning to midtown for happy hour with my home base school friends to celebrate the kickoff of a new school year. I had started at my school in midtown where I was preparing testing paperwork when the security guard whose office was directly across from mine called over.
Hey Candy? You hear an airplane just flew into the twin towers?
Her words didn’t register. I grabbed my bag.
Where you think you’re going?
I said something about having a bunch of kids I needed to test and that I was sorry but I was in a rush.
The second time, her words registered. My dad was in the towers. PS 89 was blocks from there. I called my dad’s office. No answer. I called the school. No answer. Another security guard came over and they started to talk. A second plane crashed into the towers. I called both again. No answer. I walked upstairs into the main office and whispered the news to the principal, Mrs. T and from there went from classroom to classroom interrupting literacy groups and morning meetings to summon teachers over so that I could whisper the news.
The Midtown West School is a public school on W48th Street. It shares it’s space with PPAS, a performing arts middle and high school. I started to hear high schoolers in the hallways. Some were crying, everyone was moving quickly. The principal set up a sign out table in the main hallway to expedite the process while speciality teachers ran back and forth to classrooms to bring kids out for pickup. We waited for every single child to be picked up. Some children were picked up within minutes while others were waiting for parents to walk back from the outer boroughs. Some parents were covered in ash. Luckily, none of the students had lost a parent. The subways stopped. Cell service went down. Once all of the children had been picked up, I walked from midtown to uptown with a couple of other teachers to sleep at a co-worker/friend’s apartment. Her on again/off again boyfriend worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. She stayed up and cried all night. I stayed up with her but I couldn’t cry. I was numb watching the images of the planes on tv crashing into the towers. I hadn’t seen any of this during the day. She knew, without being told, he had been killed. Yet, she took his toothbrush downtown anyway to search in the days and weeks that followed. The next morning, cell service had returned and I learned my father was ok. I walked across the George Washington Bridge back to NJ with thousands of others. It smelled like the world was on fire.
I later learned my other school had to be evacuated. The teachers and staff had to run with their crying students who were as young as four to safety while the world around them was on fire. Teachers sang and made jokes to keep the kids distracted while staying on autopilot in order to hold themselves together. There were five local schools closest to the towers. Not a single teacher left their students and they took every one of those kids through hell to safety. My father had been in the towers eating pizza on the first floor when the first plane had hit. He had initially thought there had been a bomb and knew to tell his coworkers once he was back in his office when the second plane hit to run. He made it out.
Lesson #1: Make sure your kids have their basic contact information, medical conditions, etc memorized and for children who need extra support with this should have a form of medical alert jewelry. Make sure you’re able to walk comfortably from wherever you are if need be. If you’re traveling into work, keep an extra pair of flats or sneakers at work or keep extra sneakers and change of clothes, wipes, water and a towel in your car at all times. Teach your children not to rely on their phones but their memories because in an emergency one of those things may not work. Review basic fire safety and first aid with your children every few months and at minimum annually. Get yourself certified for first aid.
Since my school was one of the five local schools to the twin towers, the staff and students were temporarily relocated to two different locations within a four month period. When I showed up for work on September 13th, more than half of the school was absent. Many kids lost their homes at least temporarily. The press was there and it was very chaotic outside of the building but inside small groups of children were sitting cross legged on the floor in small groups throughout the library and various parts of the building we were temporarily housed in. We didn’t have supplies but eventually that came. The teachers were making mini booklets with their students teaching word families, making up stories and adding illustrations. The teachers focused on what resources they had and not what they were lacking.
Lesson #2 You and your child are their most important educational resource. All of the books in the world won’t do anything if a child is stressed about their basic well being. Children need to feel safe in order to learn. September 11th was catastrophic on multiple levels. There is no way to eliminate the significant damage that occurred that day. During a crisis like 9/11 it’s pretty difficult to feel safe but it is easy to show a child that you are there for them. The most important educational tool that you have available for your child is your love. I notice people are placing a lot of importance on what curriculums or methods of instruction they’ll be using for next year but none of that is as important as showing your children that they will be ok regardless. They can learn regardless of what happens. We can’t control covid but we can control our responses to it. The staff at PS 89 used songs, art and stories to keep their student’s spirits high and to created a sense of community in the weeks and months that followed. When I am stressed and I feel like I don’t have control, I focus on a word or a phrase or my breathing. I’ve taught my kids to do the same.
September 2021 will most likely look much different than this September. However, it won’t look like it did a year ago because nothing ever does. Sentimentalism can become a trap of complacency and fear. We can use COVID as a lesson in flexibility, compassion, civic duty, and as an opportunity for growth for ourselves and for our children. Your children will always remember this time but how they will remember it will be largely impacted by our responses. Model the responses of resiliency and creativity you want to see in your children.
The students that I had in 2001 are adults now. Some are parents, some are in graduate school, living in the US and abroad. The students I had who came from mid to high socioeconomic backgrounds are highly successful adults. Several of those students did not speak more than a few words in English on 9/11 and yet still graduated from top universities. Many of my students from the poorest socioeconomic backgrounds are still struggling today. Those students were equally motivated and intelligent but school is only one factor in societal change that needs to occur. The need for educational equity and parity in this country is real as is the need for societal safety nets for our children like universal healthcare and meals for school aged children year round so that when there is a national or global challenge we can ensure that even our poorest members are taken care of.
At one point, our school was moved to alphabet city and we were told that we would be returning to our original Warren Street location in February just four months after 9/11. We were told it was safe to return by Christine Todd Whitman, head of the EPA and former Governor of NJ. I knew in my gut it couldn’t be safe and the principal of my school in midtown arranged for me to work ft there starting that February instead of returning downtown. My dad, a life long runner and non smoker has had chronic health issues ever since. He’s had part of a lung removed, cancer and heart issues. Many people died in the months and years following 9/11 from various cancers and lung conditions. Whitman has publicly acknowledged the EPAs failure. Whether you decide homeschool, virtual school or in-person school always put your child’s health first based on the information that you have and not necessarily someone else’s interpretation. Everyone is in a tough situation right now and it is important to take care of yourself and your children first just like in an airplane situation so that you are then able to help others. I do not believe putting our children at risk is somehow creating a more equitable system when it is those children who are put at even greater risk if there are more children in school. If a child needs to be there then that is ok, too. We need to be open to alternative ways of educating our youth and moving within the moment we are living in and not in reaction to it. The system is broken and it hasn’t been helping those most in need who require a true systemic change. If you are looking to help, ask those who are in need what they need and see how it may be provided.