I hesitate to add my voice to the clamorous din of narratives and opinions examining the legacy of the 9/11 tragedy on its tenth anniversary. The notorious event was born on the dawn of media saturation, and not even the enormous towers themselves could have contained the last decade’s voluminous reporting about their destruction. It seems like every news organization, whether national or local, is compelled to produce copious coverage of the milestone, as though to do anything less would somehow be unpatriotic. It has reached the point where the mere mention of the words, “a look back at 9/11” is enough to make me tune out, and we haven’t yet reached Sunday.
It reminds me of an item I saw buried in the back pages of a community newspaper several years ago. A pair of teenagers had come through town in the course of their marathon walk across the state. The purpose of their trek, according to the reporter, was to raise awareness about 9/11. That’s a little like staging a publicity stunt in order to call attention to the heliocentric model of our solar system, but kudos to them anyway, as I’m sure their intentions were sincere.
Surely all but the youngest among us need no decennial hoopla to keep the memory of that infamous day alive. It’s there every time we see an airplane cruising along at low altitude, involuntarily evoking images of doomed flights. We’re reminded of it as we deal with ever-tightening security measures at airport terminals. Government statements requesting vigilance against potential terrorist action are now commonplace, and suspicion of terrorism accompanies every random act of senseless violence. The consequences of 9/11 have permeated our culture to the extent that we define events on our national timeline as those which either preceded or followed the attack on the towers.
What can be said that hasn’t already been expressed? All that I can add is my personal experience of that bleak occasion, which was surely not too different from that of many other Americans. I did not know any of the people who lost their lives that day, nor am I acquainted with anyone who responded to the disaster scene. I’ve never even been to New York City, I’m embarrassed to say. So while I was intellectually aware of the magnitude of loss, I could not truly comprehend the horror of those who were directly involved, nor could I fully understand the anxious terror of their families. I was over five hundred miles away from Ground Zero, immersed in the small details of an ordinary day.
It was my first year of teaching, and even though the academic year had barely begun, I was running on fumes. I had naively assumed that my pedagogical training had thoroughly prepared me to teach a lively group of fifth graders, only to discover that my education had just begun. The double-wide trailer that was to serve as my classroom was not yet serviceable, and so I was forced to begin my inaugural year instructing my students in the library. The less-than-ideal setup was certainly a detriment, compounded by my lack of experience. Everything I had learning about teaching had sounded theoretically doable, yet I was finding that implementing all of those ideas was keeping me at school more than twelves hours a day. I felt like I barely knew what I was doing, and I was exhausted. That was the hazy lens through which I viewed the events of 9/11.
I first became aware that something was amiss when I entered the teacher’s lounge and found a few staff members gawking at the television. “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center,” one of them informed me. Preoccupied with my duties, I glanced at the TV while making copies of a language arts activity. Most of my brain was working on how I would successfully teach my next lesson, but a few thoughts about the developing story formed. It was tragic, of course, yet presumably accidental. Obviously fatal for the people in the plane and those unlucky enough to be near the point of impact. A horrible news story, yet comparable to other aviation disasters. An isolated incident. I gathered up my copies and headed back to my classroom.
By the time I returned to the lounge for lunch, there was much more news. A second plane had hit the other tower, a third plane had struck the Pentagon, and yet another had crashed into a Pennsylvania field. The towers themselves had collapsed. The FAA had grounded all flights across the country. Our nation was the victim of a coordinated terrorist attack, executed by hijacking our own commercial airplanes. It was riveting and mind-boggling, and in my state of perpetual exhaustion, it was also surreal and unfathomable. I was still taking the day minute-by-minute, just trying to make it through the next lesson, while this extraordinary chain of events was unfolding. No one was quite sure what it all meant, yet the responsibility of caring for and educating our students remained. We tried to carry on as normally as possible, but that became increasingly difficult.
One by one, students from my classroom were called down to the office as parents arrived to request their early dismissal. By the end of the day, I had only half of my class. The building was nearly vacant soon after the last bus departed, but I still had my standard evening routine ahead of me. My makeshift classroom needed to be put back in order. There were papers to sort and grade, files to update, copies to be made. Plus, I had to figure out what on earth I was going to do the next day, making sure that it adhered to the curriculum guides and honored the philosophies of Gardner and Piaget.
I did it all to the drone of the library TV, which I could finally turn on now that the children were gone. The sobering news was all the more troubling to my tired mind. Even before that day, I had been feeling as though I was keeping my head just above water. Now it seemed as though all of America was overwhelmed.
It was 10:00 before I left that night. My gas tank was almost empty, and I was annoyed and alarmed to find lines of anxious citizens at the gas station. I just wanted to get home and get as much sleep as I could before the next day started.
Before going to bed, I looked up at the stars above our house and noted the absence of air traffic. We live right along the flight path to a major airport, and we had become accustomed to hearing the roar of planes coming in for a landing. That night, all was eerily quiet. But unlike much of America, I had no trouble sleeping. I was too exhausted to be kept awake by the horrible news, and whatever was going on in the rest of the world, I had to be ready for another day of teaching, taking it minute-by-minute.