Sunday, September 11, 2011

No pretense of wisdom

I woke up on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 as I did any other work day: to NPR's Morning Edition. The program includes news updates at regular intervals among long-form stories and features. News of a plane striking the World Trade Center entered the update loop. Not fully awake and alert, I envisioned a low-altitude Cessna somehow lost in morning clouds.

I had no idea.

The other tower was hit. These were passenger jets. And the skies over New York were clear. I eventually turned on my television. (My television is rarely on and is never on in the morning.) Horror from Washington DC was added to horror from NYC. A terrorist attack was underway, and there was no knowing what—if anything—was next.

But school was to start at its regular time, so that's where I needed to be. My colleague, Lucy Jeffries, had a small (5"-screen small) TV in her classroom. I asked her for an update before the start of first period. My recollection is that by then, a plane had also gone down in the farmlands of Pennsylvania. And one tower had fallen. I had known that from the radio coverage, but it was good to make contact with a colleague.

A national tragedy was in the midst of unfolding. It was bad, but little was known. And the first period tardy bell rang on schedule.

What to do? There was no reason to think that there would be any modifications to the school day schedule (and there were none). There were no directives from the school's administration, and none could reasonably have been expected. There you are, classroom physics teacher: a terrorist attack under way on the other side of the country, 30 students in class, and the bell has rung.

I could have sat on a table and rapped with the students, letting them express their feelings and theories about the attack while offering sagely comfort that everything was going to be alright. Would they then repeat this exercise in periods 2 through 6? Would that be a wise way to spend the day? I didn't think so.

I could have tuned into CNN for live coverage and kept the TV going all day, watching the horror unfold on live TV. Towers collapsing, fires burning, bodies falling, and the most horrific images being replayed over and over. My aversion to TV would not have allowed me to do that. As it was, my TV monitor had neither a functional cable connection nor an operational antenna. So live viewing was not an option for me. It was an option in some classrooms, and there were teachers who elected this option.

What did I do? I proceeded with the day's scheduled lesson on motion. Toned down and gentle. But physics. That's what we did.

My head was not in the sand. I did acknowledge the news of the day. I told the students that they would never forget the date or the events of the day. A student asked, "Why 9/11?" I told him that—most likely—that was the day the terrorists were ready to implement their attack. Nothing poetic or symbolic. Just logistical.

By the end of the day, a memo was cobbled together by the school's administration and copied for distribution to all 6th period students. They were to take the memo home to their parents. The memo assured parents that, among other things, none of the classrooms were watching live coverage of the attacks or the aftermath. By then it was clear that watching victims jump to their deaths was inappropriate viewing material for students.

The memo was true for my classroom. I have reason to suspect it was not true of all the classrooms at the school. Prior to that reassuring memo, there had been no administrative directive against watching live coverage. To the best of my knowledge, administrators had not been out in any classrooms that day. So they had no direct knowledge of what was going on in classrooms. And so I saw the memo as an unintentional misrepresentation intended to provide comfort rather than an intentional breech of trust.

I thought about a bright-eyed, optimistic, spirited, joyful student named Gillian who had just begun classes at NYU. She was a key member of PhyzGang 2000, a group of friends who seemed to be having a party that coincided with my 6th period physics class of 1999-2000 and AP Physics 2000-2001. The attacks damaged us all, and real human tragedies occurred on 9/11. But I hated to think of her being in the shadows of the towers as they fell, for what that might do to her.

It was an awful day, and its black cloud was slow to dissipate. As a school, our attempts to mourn the events were heartfelt but at times awkward. I believe it was at the one week anniversary that students were assembled during class time for a remembrance: When a student leader was given the microphone he led the public school student body in prayer. Anyone offended by the notion of public school students being led in prayer during school time was expected to bite his or her tongue out of respect.

It wasn't clear whether or not student-led prayer was to become a regular feature of the mandatory memorials, so prior to the next one (the one month anniversary?) I prepared a simple sign that assured anyone who saw it that "It's OK not to pray." Producing and posting such a thing put a bull's eye on me as being a jerk, but I am such a big fan of church-state separation.

I had occasion to take a commercial flight a few weeks after 9/11. Airport parking had been reconfigured, enhanced security checks, and the uniformed military personnel armed with M16s served as a reminder that the world was now a different place.


Julia (Cuny) Meyer said...

As a parent, I think you, along with many other teachers, did the right thing by our children. On that day certain things NEEDED to be normal, especially for kids. And you are correct - it was okay to pray - or not. That is part of America and I thank God (not facetiously) that you have that right.

maxutils said...

Your first paragraph recounts my experience almost exactly. I remember, it was a block day, and I had a test scheduled . . . the students hated that I administered it, but if you'd studied the night before, you'd be ticked if I hadn't . ..