Shockwaves

Shockwaves By Amy Katz Brooklyn Technical High School, Sept. 26, 2001 It’s been two weeks since the world fell. They are using our school, Stuyvesant, four blocks from the World Trade Center, to house rescue workers and supplies, so we’ve been relocated to Brooklyn. Stuyvesant has 3,000 students and Brooklyn Tech has 5,000, so we’re operating under split session. Tech attends school in the morning, we begin in the afternoon. We have 20-minute class periods. Education at its finest. 8:57 a.m. September 11, 2001 Stuyvesant High School After the first plane hits, I change the lesson for the day, and rush to make copies of a passage from John Donne’s Meditation XVII, “No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main … Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” I’d been sweating over this first day back. What do we talk about? Should I let it go where it needs to? Maybe I should play it safe and move straight into the text. We were never told if any students lost parents in the buildings. How do we talk about this? Everyone is still so raw. 9:01 a.m. September 11 On my way to make copies, I run into Harriet, the building manager, but more like the school mom; adoring, sweet and little. I look at her, tears in my eyes. She stares, “Do not cry. You need to shut off your emotions now. Keep the kids away from the theatre. We are going to have a lot of people coming in off the streets.” The teachers meet with counselors before returning to school to instruct us on how to identify an “at-risk” student. We are told to observe whether or not the students are acting like themselves. We’ve known them for four days. 9:06 a.m. 9/11 The principal announces, “Attention staff and students. A commuter plane hit the World Trade Center. Please remain in your rooms until further notification.” All I know is people are dying and I have to make sure the kids get it. After Columbine, so few of the students connected. Worse, I didn’t know how to guide them towards connection. So when the planes hit, all I think is I have to lead them towards feeling the loss even if they haven’t lost anyone. John Donne must be able to do it, “… Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.” Dilemma, continue reading the text we began the day before school unexpectedly closed? As if teaching Existentialism wasn’t challenging enough at this time, I chose to start with Albert Camus’ The Stranger. It begins, “Mama died today. Or was it yesterday.” 9:36 a.m. 9/11 Nelson interrupts, “This is ridiculous! The goddamn terrorists are invading and we’re reading poetry?!” I have no idea what he’s talking about. Terrorists? Where does he get this stuff from? “Listen Nelson, whatever is happening, and none of us really knows, it won’t do anybody any good to panic. Normally, you know I’d ask you to leave the room and cool off. I can’t do that right now so if you don’t want to participate, take out paper and record your rage.” What if Nelson was right? I don’t tell people that part, I’m embarrassed. Reading poetry as the world falls? They shuffle into the room. It’s awkward. We’ve only known each other for four days. Yet, we’ve also experienced one of the most intense and intimate moments of our lives – together. 10:01 a.m. 9/11 We’re discussing the poem. Jody says, “No one prepares us for death. Maybe we should be studying death not math.” The conversation is cut short by a deep rumbling. Our building shakes, lights go out, windows go white with smoke. Panic fills my throat. What’s behind the white? A chunk of building? Can ours go down from shock waves? I realize for the first time that I am not just responsible for the development of my students’ minds but for their lives. My protector’s instinct kicks in, “Everyone up out of your seats, come to the north side of the room, sit along the wall, hands over your head.” That is an air raid drill, but I’ve never done one. When I was a kid my dad told me about them. The drill still seems useless to me. But the remarkable thing is that the smartest kids in the country, kids that take you to task on every misplaced comma, did as I said without question. “Hey everyone. Catch your breath. The ten flights are rough. It’s really good to see you. Listen, I want to tell you what I’ve been struggling with while we’ve been out and then we’ll talk about whatever you want. I wondered whether we should continue reading The Stranger, and decided that we would. What’s the use in sanitizing the class. We can’t avoid what’s happening in the world and my hope is that the text will give us a structure within which to grapple with tragedy and death. Ok, I’m done. We’ll talk about whatever you want.” Silence. Man, I usually spend a month working the class into a community, making the room safe to share. How can I expect them to discuss something so incomprehensible, and painful. I take a deep breath and come up with a more grounded question, “What have you been doing while we’ve been out?” 10:13 a.m. 9/11 The kids sit on the floor, some have their arms around each other, Danny says, “Man, that would suck to die at work.” Vlad has a Walkman and tells us a plane hit the Pentagon. We’re itchy to move. I try to distract them, “Who thinks college is important?” Our classroom is on the ground floor facing south towards the towers. As the smoke clears, the windows become like a row of giant T.V. screens filled with terrified faces, ash white, fleeing a disaster in the latest action film. But it’s so lifelike that the characters on screen seem to be coming straight for us. Out front, a young mother racing with a toddler in a pink stroller. Tamara begins, “I don’t want to talk about what’s happened. I’m sick of the memorials popping up and the fliers, ‘Have you seen my husband? Have you seen my daughter?’ You know 35,000 children die in the world every day! And all we pay attention to is the 3,000 of ours who died. We only care about us, the U.S. If this happened in another country we’d forget it in a day. And it does happen all the time in other countries; genocide, civil war. We’re so spoiled, so spineless. Why can’t we just deal with it and move on!” Maggie’s next, “Well, I want to talk about it. I knew someone in that building and I’m going to spend the rest of my life talking about it if I want.” Steven closes, “Um, I’ve been volunteering wherever I can, hospitals, places collecting supplies for rescue workers. Not really because I want to, but because I feel so guilty that I don’t feel the devastation that others do.” I love that boy. 10:19 a.m. 9/11 “Attention. We are going to begin evacuating.” As we step out of the classroom, a fireman bursts through the school entrance, tears off his helmet and starts puking, barely able to catch his breath. He’s plastered in white. 3,200 people are evacuated through two doors. We’re told to walk north along the river to 14th Street where we can cut across and go where we need to. While walking, the ground trembles. People turn to witness the North tower collapse. I deliberately resist. Parents stand at barricades on 14th Street – hundreds of them – waiting to see if their children are alive. One mother is shockingly forceful as she grabs for her son. When parents connect with their kids, the looks on both sides… Something happened to my heart that day. There’s talk about the heroism of regular people that day. I felt like a coward. I didn’t want to return to school and hoped it would be cancelled for the year. I had nothing to give them when we resumed, nothing to teach. I didn’t even understand Camus’ The Stranger. No, there is one thing I grasp now; how little we know about ourselves, our world and each other. Three weeks later, I see my family, and leave the city, for the first time since September 11th. We are at my sister’s house on Long Island for Rosh Hashana. Hugging my father hello, I break down. I am a child again wanting only to be safe in my father’s arms. I want him to make it all better – to make it all go away. I felt so, so fragile. I hate fragility.