Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

My September 11th Story—Which Hat Should I Wear?

"Good morning! Take out your journals and get today's outline down." It started like any other school morning. My students were given a collaborative challenge and were working in their groups. During our investigations, a school administrator walked in, handed me a piece of paper, and immediately walked back out. I made a funny face at the class not knowing what in the world that behavior could possibly mean.

I walked across the room with the paper in my hand to answer one more student question. I smiled and said, "Well, I wonder what this says?" loudly and in a playful voice. My eyes spun over the words on the paper; I remember seeing "Urgent" and "CNN" and "Pentagon" and "World Trade Center" and "plane" and "crash." It took me what seemed a lifetime to process the content of this note. All of a sudden, a shiver ran down my spine. I felt instantly weak and physically cold. I looked up at my class and for some reason they seemed so very young at that moment. They were babies and I needed to protect them. But from what?

I managed to snap myself out of this momentary trance, collected my thoughts and figuratively and firmly put on my teacher hat. In a calm, serious voice, I said, "Guys, does anyone have family visiting or working in New York City today or flying into or out of Boston?" Three students raised their hands. Rather than read the potentially life-shattering news in front of the whole class, I pulled these three students out into the hall. All of them collapsed as I read the news. One had grandparents flying in from Boston; the other two had fathers working in the Trade Center. I grabbed another student from the class to walk these three down to the counseling office and told her to call me when she got them there. I called the office to let them know they were coming, as well.

I went back into the classroom to read the note to the rest of the class. They were quiet, I think going through the similarly slow processing that I went through earlier. While I gave them some time to think, I heard an announcer's voice speaking next door. My good friend Maureen had turned on a radio for her class to listen to. I brought my class next door to join her.

As a student was asking me a question, his voice seemed to fade. My stomach fell to the floor. The wind left my lungs so quickly that I had to gasp for air. A student said, "Ms. [G], are you okay?" My teacher hat was gone and my personal hat hit me like a ton of bricks."Do I know anyone...?" I thought. It took me this long to think of myself as a person. As someone who had a life outside the walls of the classroom. As someone who might also have friends or family in danger.

I checked in to see if Maureen knew anyone—she did not. And then I panicked again. I switched hats. I was Mom. "Are my kids okay? What's going on at their school? Are they frightened?" So I went to call my husband, Spiro, who was also a teacher, to see if I should go pick up my oldest daughter, Katina, from school. (Being so emotional, I thought it best to check in with my husband! He helped give me some direction.) My youngest daughter, Kira, was in the 3-year-old pre-school at my husband's high school.

So I called his office.
"Joan? This is Olive. Have you heard about all this craziness?"
"Yes, that's why I'm calling. Is Spiro around?"
"Well, I'm not sure. Let me check. (Pause) Oh my God! The fire alarm is going off! I have to go!"

She hung up on me!
I had NO idea what the hell was happening. So I grabbed my keys and my phone and was heading to my husband's school. I said to Maureen, "I've got to go. I think Kira and Spiro are in trouble." She said, "Go. I've got your class."

As I was walking out of the building, my cell phone rang.
"Joan? Where are you?"
"I'm on my way to see you! Where is Kira? Is she okay?" I was a wreck.
"She's in my arms, Babe. She's fine. Olive told me she hung up on you and I knew you'd be on your way over."
His voice was calm and light. I relaxed.
"What the hell is going on over there?" I asked.
"Some idiot chemistry teacher set off the fire alarm doing a demo right after the principal made the announcement about the Trade Center. It is crazy over here!"

I instinctually laughed out loud. My teacher hat went flying back on, knowing just how easily it is to cause this kind of trouble doing demos! I turned myself around, went back to my classroom, and talked with my students. I spent the rest of the day chatting with kids about their thoughts, trying to keep them thinking scientifically and as a humanitarian, not letting them get caught up in the drama and rumor of the event.

Arriving home that evening, I was greeted with a big hug from my pre-schooler, Kira. She said in a somewhat shaky voice, "Mom. Did you hear a plane hit my pre-school today?! We had to go outside and everything." I was completely thrown, but then understood what she was saying. She had jumbled all of the data that had been thrown at her that day. So we spent time over dinner explaining things to her. (To this day, she still has to transpose the information. Her first instinct is to remember a plane hitting her building.)

Later that night, Katina and I went to sit on my bed. I needed to rest and I wanted to comfort her at the same time. I put my head back and closed my eyes as she cuddled next to me.
"Mommy, I feel so badly for all the people who got hurt when the plans crashed into those buildings."
"So do I, Sweetheart. It's an incredible tragedy. Such a senseless act."
She was quiet for a moment. She sat up and stuttered, "You mean, someone did this...someone did this on purpose?"

I slowly opened my eyes. Tears welled up in both of us. I recognized the revelation she was having and how thoroughly depressing it would be. Then, she shook her head. It was as if she was preventing the thought from getting any deeper. She knew she couldn't process the idea of a person doing this purposefully. So she instinctively protected her emotional state. It was amazing. She reached her hand over and grabbed mine. She said, "Don't worry, Mom. We'll figure out some way to help those people who were hurt. Maybe we could make ribbons and sell them and give the money to those who need it." Out of the mouths of babes, you know?

I've never gone through so many unexpected hat changes in such a short amount of time. And all I can think is that if this experience drained me psychologically and physically at this level, I have so much respect and admiration for anyone who actually lived through it. I can't even begin to imagine.


Andy Zweibel said...

What a touching story! It's incredible to think of the realization that your oldest had to go through in understanding that something so awful could have actually been planned. As is with most of what you do, though, I would imagine your experiences as a teacher helped guide your actions on this day with your daughters, and your experience as a parent helped guide your actions in the classroom. Just because you're "wearing a different hat" doesn't mean you're not calling from experiences you gained using the other hat!

Let's hope the country (or the world, even) doesn't have to experience a tragedy like this again!

J. Gallagher said...

So true, Andy! I certainly did call on all experiences to get through a very emotional day. And although it was an unspeakable day for our country, unfortunately there horrific circumstances that exist in other places as we speak. So I think the key is to take some action that either further promotes peace or tries to instill peace. My daughters and I have put our effort into Invisible Children. ( Putting some effort somewhere will help make your last statement a reality!