The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. The Challenger shuttle disaster in 1986. Americans who lived during those times can tell you exactly what they were doing when they heard about or witnessed those sad events. Unfortunately, on September 11, 2001, we added another tragedy to that list: The al-Qaeda terrorist attacks. Thousands of people lost their lives when two planes hit New York’s Twin Towers, a third plane crashed into the Pentagon building and a fourth plane – bound for the nation’s capitol – went down in a field in Pennsylvania after its brave passengers unsuccessfully tried to take control.
I know exactly what I was doing on that dreadful day: I was a teacher, trying to cope with my own overwhelming feelings of disbelief and anger, while simultaneously attempting to help essay writing, calm and reassure groups of upset students in the Las Vegas area middle school where I taught math.
Our time zone is three hours behind New York’s, so it was only 5:45 in the morning here when the first plane crashed. My husband awakened me to the news; at that point, we thought it was an accident. 15 minutes and another crash later, we knew it wasn’t.
Shaken, I reluctantly left for school at 6:30. When I entered the building, I found all of the administrators and office personnel gathered around television sets – some crying – all in shock, over two more terrorist attacks. There were 1500 students on their way to our middle school that morning, and – even though we were filled with questions, fear and anxiety over what might still unfold – we had to carry on.
Only about 50 to 60 percent of the students showed up that day. Parents were scared and wanted their children close at home. Some families hadn’t watched television that morning and were unaware of the horrible events that were unnerving our country.
It surely wasn’t business as usual in the classrooms. We couldn’t pretend the disaster did not exist. The word was out, the students had questions, and we were left to answer them as honestly as we could with our limited information. Mainly, these young teens just wanted to express their feelings and concerns. Administrators visited the classrooms, trying to assure students that they were safe.
In an effort to refocus my students’ worried minds, I put them into groups and pulled out the math games they loved to play. None of us wanted to face new math concepts or practices on that Tuesday morning.
School counselors advised us not to turn on our television sets in class. They said students who see the same event over and over – particularly at younger ages – think it is happening again and again. Although middle-school students could make the distinction, the catastrophe overwhelmed them; many couldn’t stop crying. Las Vegas is a melting pot for all states and many countries. There were students each class period worrying about the safety of friends and family in the East. Since we live in a high profile town, they were also concerned that Las Vegas might even be a target.
We later found out that one of the teachers in our school district, Barbara Edwards, was aboard American Airlines flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon. She taught French and German at Palo Verde High School, where they’ve erected a memorial in her honor. “We will never forget,” is engraved on the memorial in French and German.
That day was a challenge. For the students’ sake, I had to act as if I wasn’t rattled – the truth is, I was emotionally drained by the day’s end. Together, my students and I had to face a disaster that would no doubt shake our sense of security for a long time. It now bothered me even more that the safeguards at our school weren’t adequate. Anyone could enter the building at any time. Some changes were later made — but not enough.
I admire the first responders who courageously met difficult challenges that day. I know they were a great inspiration to the students sitting in my math class ten years ago.
God bless those who lost their lives and the families who love and miss them.