9/11 in a high school classroom

Interrupted by the repeated vibrations of my cell phone while teaching a high school journalism class just south of Atlanta, I excused myself to take a call—and learned from my husband that a plane crashed into one of the twin towers in NYC.  I stepped outside the school building to hide the look of disbelief on my face and learn what I could on the phone. I tried to prepare myself to face the curious teens inside, but inside I was falling apart. I wanted to go home—to find out what was going on. I wanted to call my children at their colleges and make sure they were OK. But I had a classroom full of students and so I did what I must—quickly saying a prayer and telling my husband to PLEASE check on everyone while I headed back to the classroom.

Noting almost no action in the strangely quiet hallways—I calmly told the students what I had learned. In this particular school I had already noted a “no news” policy was considered appropriate in order to keep people from panicking. Somehow it never worked as information spread like wildfire with or without the aid of the intercom system. As I calmly finished telling the students what I knew, one young woman was called to the office. Her dad was supposed to be in New York for the day and her mom was trying to reach her to tell her he was OK; that he changed plans and didn’t go. Within minutes it seems, doors flew open throughout the large school, and students, mine included, crammed into classrooms with televisions.

For the rest of that period I talked to my students about how we, as journalists, would likely begin coverage of such magnitude. Even as I was speaking to them—my own fingers itched for a camera and my heart yearned to be in New York. It’s hard to explain, the wanting to be there—but that’s how it was for me for days and then months. For the students in my class at that specific time, the irony wasn’t lost on me that some would follow careers in journalism–and they would have a chance to see and evaluate coverage of a major attack on American soil.

But my main concern that day was to make sure my journalism and English students were OK. I could not deny them their need to see what was happening. So with each class change we took roll and then went to the science classroom of a colleague and stayed glued to the television. By the time the second plane had hit, the towers had fallen, the Pentagon had taken a hit and a plane had crashed in Pennsylvania–our eyes were wrung dry.

Many of my students’ parents worked for airlines—or traveled. I prayed and swept aside my own feelings and let them talk. They expressed fear, outrage, grief and sadness. They tried to make sense of senseless acts. I told them that the enemy would win if we hated like those who attacked. It was one of the longest days of my life—and I’ll remember those students forever. It was my last year in the classroom. It was their first real lesson in how to tell a story that hurts and keeps on hurting.

During a break, I called my daughter at school and remember her sweet voice  on the phone from college. She told me she had heard and then gone to class and discovered no one was there. That morning she joined students and faculty on their knees in her university’s chapel praying for the nation and praying for the families of those lost and missing. That afternoon she told me she remembered Air Force One flying over middle Tennessee.

Later that week my son, a freshman at a tiny college in south Georgia, was still nervous and devastated—having been in New York just months before 9/11. When the school didn’t fly the flag at half mast following the tragedy, he was angry.

My husband and I, both military veterans, followed President Bush’s every move. I also watched our climate at school closely—grieved by acts against a young Arab teacher who finally quit a few weeks after 9/11 when she said some thugs left a harassing note on her car and she said school administrators failed to take it seriously.

President Bush’s National Day of Prayer and Remembrance Friday, Sept. 14, 2001, was especially meaningful. I took the day off school to drive to Atlanta with my husband and pray at Centennial Park.

See You at The Pole, just eight days after 9/11 was a rallying point for believers on our campus to come together and pray for our country—as well as our school. And we needed the prayer. Into the midst of the turmoil, a longtime teacher committed suicide.

Sept. 11 is a day I will never forget and 2001 a year I will never forget. I won’t ever easily forget the people who were there with me that day.

NOTE: In 2001, as a national correspondent for Baptist Press, I wrote the related columns:  “A day of trauma & tough questions topped by a vital history lesson,” and “Teacher yearns for, finds hope on the day of prayer.

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