Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11/01 - Teaching During Tragedy

There are two events in history that are forever linked in my mind to Room 509, the room where I taught high school English.  Those two events are Columbine and 9/11. I was in the classroom teaching when both these events burst upon the national scene and changed our lives forever.

When such terrible tragedy occurs while one is teaching, the role of being a teacher takes over.  I found that I could not allow myself the luxury of fully experiencing my own shock and grief during either event because I had a responsibility to help my students process and understand what was happening without causing them to become even more confused and afraid because of the way I presented myself.  I had to be strong for them.  I had to reassure them that we were safe.  I had to make sure that they knew that I would be in charge of our little corner of the world while I tried to help them make sense of what was happening.  I could not give in to panic.  I could not cry uncontrollably.  I could not go into some sort of stunned shutdown.  I had to manage my classroom and look after my students.

I will never forget the morning of 9/11.  I was at the front of my classroom standing at my podium taking roll for my first period class when I notice a colleague  who did not teach first period standing outside my row of classroom windows that looked out into the library.  She seemed terribly upset, shaken.  She was the drama teacher afterall, but her distress seemed extreme and quite real.  I walked to the door at the back of the room and quietly asked if something was wrong.  "Some SOBs have just flown air planes into the Twin Towers in New York City," she said.  "Does your television work?  Turn it on.  We're under attack."

"I can't just go back in there and turn on my t.v. and watch New York being attacked by air," I said.  "Find out if this is true and what is really happening.  Surely, we will hear from administration if this is true.  Surely, they will come and tell us what is happening."  "Don't be too sure," she said.  "You know how teachers are the last to know."

True.  We were the last to find out what was really going on.  Within no time at all, parents were showing up at the school and taking their kids home.  I had turned the television on by then to try and get some news.  I had decided that it was better that the students heard what was going on from a news source in an environment where I had some control.  I would be able to help them make sense of what was happening.  I asked the students to get out their journals to write about their emotions.  I told them to write down their questions that still lingered as to what was really happening.  I said it was important to record what they were seeing happen.  I encouraged them to write their emotions out.  I offered to read and discuss privately what they had written.   It seemed to be the only thing I could do that would help the students make sense of a world that had suddenly exploded before their eyes.  Perhaps, my approach was wrong.  I tried to keep communication open.  I tried to reassure.  I tried to comfort.  I was not ever told how to hand such a thing in any of my teacher ed classes.

I had not taken into account that our principal would finally come on the P.A. with the following announcement:  "Teachers, you are to turn off your televisions.  You are to follow the lesson plans you have for today.  Any news that needs to be relayed to you and your students will come from the office.  Do not excuse any student from your classroom unless they are sent for by the office.  Do not allow your students to leave your classroom."

He was a former social studies teacher.  Somehow, he didn't think it was appropriate that we watch history being made during class time.  Somehow, he didn't think the delivery of the curriculum should be adjusted to use the current event topic as a writing prompt.  We were to stay on task.  There would be no television watching in his school.

Ironically, in my tenth grade English classes we were to read, Contents of a Dead Man's Pockets that day. (Click on the story title to read the story yourself.)  The story is about a man who goes after a piece of paper that flies out of a window in a skyscraper.  He actually goes out on the ledge of the building to go after the paper.

So, while New York City was under attack, and while the people of New York were facing untold horror, we read about a guy stuck on a ledge of a skyscraper.  I don't know when a story seemed more real than the one we read that day.  I don't know when a story generated more discussion that seemed to really fit what was going on around us.

It is ironic to me that I now see much on the internet on how teach today's students about 9/11.  I am not sure that even now after all these ten years I know that how I handled what I taught my students about what was happening before our very eyes was appropriate.  I don't know that I am able to make sense of what happened that day any better today than I could then.  I only know that I wanted my students to know that when it appears the world is falling down around you, it is important to pull together, talk to each other, support each other, and to help each other feel less afraid.

We all lost a measure of innocence that day.  Life as we knew it changed.  The unthinkable had happened.  I remembered the bomb drills that we had practiced when I was a child in elementary school during the early 50's when we hid under our desks, or lined up in the hallway with our head tucked between our knees.  Those fears of being bombed had been left behind in the 50's.  Now, in the first year of the new millennium, I found myself teaching in a classroom while watching air planes attack the center of New York City.  I still am not sure any of us can ever teach others what that meant to us personally or to our nation.