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Letters to the editor - 9/15/02

September 16, 2002

A teacher remembers Sept. 11, 2001



By Kittylee Harbaugh

Disbelief. Vulnerability. Shock. Nervousness. Fear. Families. Concern. Silence. Comfort. Sept. 11, 2001.

That Tuesday morning began as usual for me. I was teaching a writing lesson in a second-grade classroom. While I roamed around the room, helping students with their assignment, the classroom teacher beckoned me and whispered, "Did you know the Pentagon was on fire?"

I shook my head and walked away. A feeling of dread came over me, and an unexplained nervousness seem to quake under my skin. I used my calm "teacher voice" and continued my lesson. I was smiling for the children's sake and hoped they didn't sense the false note in my voice. As soon as class was over, I looked for someone to tell me more. All outside doors to the school were locked and a staff member had been assigned to guard the doors. My feelings of dread and nervousness were fueled.

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All classes were in session and, with the exception of the staff at the doors, routine instruction was taking place. Finally someone informed me that not only was the Pentagon on fire, it had been hit by an airplane. More unbelievable, the World Trade Center towers had been the target of two airplanes and were on fire as well.

A cold feeling of fear swept through me. I walked past other classrooms until I found a room without children, but with a TV. Two teachers who had no duties at the time were gathered around, watching in silence. After watching a few minutes, still unable to comprehend the horrifying scenes, I tore myself away. I had lunch duty next. Routines needed to be followed. There would be time for answers later.

Walking through the hallways felt eerie and surreal, like something out of "The Twilight Zone." The world seemed to be on fire and panic was in the air. Perhaps our country was being attacked or suddenly involved in a war. Yet here we were in school, going about our duties. The nervousness continued, that feeling of wanting to get out, but was quelled by the fact that there were children around whose needs had to be addressed. With a strained smile on my face, I headed into the cafeteria.

Early in the school year, cafeteria routines are still being established and a normal day at lunch is always loud and full of excitement.

I tried to compensate for my sense of vulnerability and nervousness by being extra compassionate to the first graders who were eating. Suddenly, a parent rushed into the cafeteria, strode up to the table, gathered up the remaining lunch, and took her child out. The other children glanced up but quickly went back to eating and talking to their friends. I sought the principal who told me schools were being dismissed early.

On this beautiful sunny September day, students had indoor recess. In an effort to keep track of who was going where and with whom, and to keep the panic of the parents from students, the staff met parents at the school's front door, got their names, their children's names, then sent staff members to escort children out.

I'll never forget the faces of those who came to pick up their children. Their faces showed fear, panic, dread and concern. Love also was quite apparent. And the entire family was there. It was not just mom or dad, but mother, father, younger siblings, and usually the older children who had already been dismissed. Children were greeted with hugs and kisses. Families left together, often holding hands or each other, but always touching in some way.

From the time the first parent rushed into the school and we found out schools were being closed early, some staff members began making phone calls to alert parents to expect children home early.

Those who could personally picked up their children. By dismissal time, most children had been taken home. As a staff we felt uneasy sending walkers and bus riders home, not knowing if someone would be there to greet them. We hoped they all had an emergency plan in effect, one they would follow on a snow day. We had done all we could. Now it was time to deal with our own feelings and needs. The principal gave us permission to leave as soon as the last bus left. No one stayed around too long.

Outside, the skies were silent. Beautiful blue cloudless skies, but unnaturally silent. The eeriness, the panic, the nervousness remained. The prettiness of the day, the warmth of the sun, could not push aside the chill within.

A message came from my church: There would be an impromptu service at 7 p.m. My husband and I were drawn there, as were nearly 80 people. We greeted one another with hugs and handshakes, weak smiles and quiet voices.

Relief swept over me as my college-age son and a friend entered the sanctuary. The sanctuary filled with quiet anticipation.

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