Teaching During a Tragedy: Remembering 9-11-2001

Post Date: September 11th, 2011

English teachers pick up tragedy, horror, and the grisly details of human behavior every day. That’s the normal fare of classroom literature; we deal in anguish and suffering while parsing metaphor, symbol, and paragraph. The racism and incest of To Kill a Mockingbird; the bloodbaths of Julius Caesar; the horror, the horror of imperialism and slavery in Heart of Darkness. Teachers must walk a line of clinical curiosity to help students see the craft behind the passion and the pain. Sure, I’ve done a lot of dramatic readings, dragged my students up to the front of the room for role plays, and insisted students see the beauty, meaning, transcendence, and emotion. But like many of my colleagues, I’ve rarely forgotten my role and mission as skill mentor. We’ve got work to do here, people.

Words like competencies, skills, and grades cease to mean much when bad things happen for real, off the page: real deaths, real hurricanes, and real Twin Towers falling. When they’re happening while class is supposed to be in session.

10 years after 9-11, I struggle to remember how or what I taught that Tuesday. I recall a student rushing into the classroom at break (was it about 9:45 AM?) to tell us to turn on the TV, turn on the TV! I sat in shock with a small group of students watching news footage. I remember a student crying next to me; I put my arm around her; and I believe I said to her, “Are those people–” Did I actually ask, Are those people jumping from the burning buildings? I couldn’t believe my eyes anymore than my students could.

Because nothing was making sense, I moved in very slow motion that morning. It hit me right about then that my sister had just moved to Manhattan (less than a month before, so I still pictured her elsewhere, not having yet visited), and my best friend from high school lived there, too. I began making phone calls from my classroom. My father assured me my sister was okay; or, at least she’d said she was when she called my father sometime after 9:00 AM. 10 blocks away, 10 years ago, my sister felt the whole building shudder and knew she had to leave, right away, without really knowing why. She would then spend four hours walking home, covered in dust and debris, and we would hear the whole story days later. I would learn that my best friend and her husband heard the news before they left for work that day; that they, who often worked 9:30 AM to 7:00 PM, a New York schedule, missed being near the terror by the mere fact of routine.

Then a student asked me to come outside and pray with them at the flagpole. This student had just formed a religious group on campus, asking me to be the advisor, and despite lots of resistance from the faculty, we were allowed to meet in an unused room before school began once a week–Wednesdays. But on that strange, slow-motion Tuesday, no one seemed to much care about following any rules or who was doing what. We gathered out there in sharp September sun, under a bright blue sky, and in a shaky voice, with all of us holding hands, the student led us in prayer.

My other block class that day watched TV with me; I felt it was necessary for us to see what was going on. Then I turned the TV off at the sight of crowds celebrating somewhere in the Middle East. One of my students later told me the footage was contrived–that no one was actually celebrating at the news. I still don’t know the truth, but I very much hope she’s right.

None of the above qualifies as teaching. It was response, mere response, a matter of being there, moment by moment, trying to grasp the events and their magnitude. The rest of the day is a blank to me.

I asked students to journal about it the next day. I remember grim faces looking back at me while I told them writing can help us process and help us heal. At least, I think that’s what I said. I gave a very vague prompt, probably asking them to write whatever they felt. We wrote together. I always let my students fold over pages for privacy, and I can’t tell you what anyone wrote.

10 years ago on a Tuesday, I did not teach. I was physically present, I was observant, I was reactive. I was a person trying to understand what was happening and to not cry in front of my students. I had no comforting words, just a knowledge I had to keep moving through this like every other American. I, usually the question asker, had too many that day and the rest of that year no one could answer. And I could not hand my kids these insecure, tragic, and painful queries for study.

Today if I were in a classroom I could, no doubt because questions 10 years later would be different for high school students who were 4, 5, and 6 that day, who may never have been to New York, and who know no one there. I’m not sure. But I can’t ignore the event anymore than I can ignore metaphor when it’s time to teach it. Perhaps a teacher’s Hippocratic oath is to do what we believe aids healthy learning and human development. That does include stopping a task to remember the past; it includes giving honor to people and events over pacing guides and curricular goals. Stop, drop, and heal. For all those legislators and officials who would give teachers another duty for their plate: let me say we educators strive toward–dare I call it?–spiritual competency, human feeling, on those days that are anniversaries, when we can’t ignore what’s gone before and that which yet may never be parsed, ever, to a test’s satisfaction.

Writing Prompts:

— What are your strongest memories of 9-11-2001? Are any memories ones that you still struggle with? Are there any ones that you cling to?
— Is there any element of strangeness to your recollections of that day, making you wondering if your memory serves you right? Do you wonder if any memories might have tangled with others’? What parts of the day are blank to you? What do you ask yourself now about that day that you wish you could remember?
— What has this tragedy meant to you over the last 10 years?
— How has your perception of this tragedy changed?
— In the wake of the tragedy, has there been any event that has continued the pain for you or started the process of healing? What would those events be?
— Do you believe in anniversaries? Do they help you and others you know? Why or why not?
— Should schools provide official recognition of landmark dates since national tragedies? Why or why not?
— When a tragedy strikes, how have you handled yourself, responded to your students, and addressed your curriculum on such a day?
— What do you want the children of tomorrow to understand about 9-11?

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