The morning of September 11, 2001 dawned cool and clear in New York City. It was our first full day of school at Chapin and life was good.
At about 8:45 the phone rang in my office. It was my plant director who urged me to turn on the television in the reception room. It appeared that a small plane had hit one of the twin towers. And we all know the rest of the story.
When it became apparent that we were not dealing with an accident, all I could think of was “How many parents are we going to lose?” Our parent body was heavily into the financial services industry, and we did lose some, but certainly not the number I had feared. One Kindergarten dad who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, one mom of a June graduate who was attending a meeting at Windows on the World, one of our trustees, whose offices were in the WTC and many relatives and friends. On September 10 we had to call the fire department to respond to a small fire on campus. Of the 11 wonderful men who responded to the call, 9 died the next day. A Jesuit school in Chelsea lost over 50 parents and alumni who were firefighters and police. No one was untouched. It was very personal.
As I think back over the days and weeks following September 11, my primary recollection is on the toll that it takes to live on “high alert” when you are responsible with your staff for the safety of hundreds of children. Children need to be kept safe and given a sense of consistency and predictability, be they 5 or 15, if they are to learn and grow. And that was very hard to provide amid frequent “shelter in place” drills, “evacuation” drills, and conjectures about when the next incident might occur in your city.
The teachers were heroes in every sense of the word. There is not a doubt in my mind that any one of us would have exchanged our lives for our children without so much as a second thought. We had a job to do and it was to keep our students safe. On September 11, communication was very minimal. The Internet was not as developed, cell phones were just coming into wide use and the land lines were down at times. All of our teachers were local and all had family. My husband worked at a tech company about 8 blocks from the WTC. He walked uptown as did so many since there were no buses or taxis. No one asked to leave or to be released early, because we all had a job to do.
“High alert” (if you recall we had those security color code days – red, orange, yellow), seemed to go on forever, and as it did, the potential threats became more explicit – anthrax, dirty bombs, biological weapons. I will never forget the day that I sat in my office talking with a pharmaceutical distributor located in Denver. I was ordering doses of potassium iodide to protect the thyroid, a pediatric antibiotic to protect from biological threats and face masks. The bone chilling reality of possibility gripped me when he asked, “How many do you have under the age of seven? Between 7 and 10? 10 and 12? Teenagers? Adults? Imagine doing that math and remaining unaffected.
Older students who knew what was at stake were willing to admit that they were afraid, and yet, they were heroes in their own way to the younger students – leading them by the hand to drills, remaining calm and caring in spite of their own fears. I remember one 12th grade girl coming into my office in the days after 9/11 and saying, “I am so afraid.” My response to her was, “that’s OK, we’re all afraid, but we can be strong together.” And we were.
In spite of high alert, barricades, heightened security on every corner, widespread uncertainly, and attendance at many, many funerals, we all grew closer together. We trusted one another more, tried to help each other out and lend some perspective in a city that would never be the same again. The spirit of heroism that was born on the 11th, continued to flourish. I believe that we all became a little greater as a result.
I have many other memories about the events of 9/11 and the days that followed, but none so powerful as those that involved trying to keep children safe. And yes, I have had “high alert” moments since then, but minimal in comparison. I can only imagine what is must be like for educators in countries at war. No, in fact, I don’t have to imagine it, I know.
About the author: Sandra J Theunick, has been head of school at St. Andrew’s Priory School since July 2007. A career educator, she began as a classroom teacher and has served as Dean of Students, Department Head and Campus Minister in various postings.
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