I was at school, teaching a class of eighth graders. Here is my story:
“Where did I put that stack of papers?” I muttered to myself as I looked for the copies of the handouts I needed to give my first class of the day. “There they are!” I seemed to always be scrounging at the last minute to find what I needed for class. When would I ever get organized?
“Mrs. McGriff, did you hear what happened? A plane ran into the World Trade Center!” Josh told me as he came into homeroom that morning.
I looked up at Josh in disbelief. “Josh, you can’t believe everything you hear. That’s how rumors get started.” I was always amazed at how quickly news traveled around the middle school. Somehow without radios or televisions, my students seemed to know what had happened as soon as it had happened. Of course, by the time the news made the rounds of the school, it had often changed quite a bit. I knew from past experience that Josh—like many middle school students—was quick to pass on news, but did not often check the accuracy of what he heard first.
Soon homeroom was over, and students in my second period class came into the room. Small groups of students stood around the desks, talking and laughing before beginning the work of the day. I hastily checked one more time for the handouts on using commas that we would go over in a few minutes.
“Hey, Mrs. McGriff, did you hear that a plane ran into the World Trade Center?” Cory asked just as the bell rang. Several other students looked up at me.
Oh no, I thought. Would this story not ever go away today? But still, Cory was generally a pretty responsible student. There was only one way to put an end to this and get on with class.
“All right, class,” I said. “Let’s turn on the television. If something like this really happened, it will be on all the channels.” I couldn’t imagine an airplane running into the World Trade Center in New York. It’s not like the pilot couldn’t see them from a long ways off. And besides, I knew from my experience as a pilot that small planes couldn’t just ride over New York and buzz the tops of apartment buildings. With as many airplanes that flew into and out of New York, small planes weren’t even allowed without meeting specific guidelines. I never imagined that someone would deliberately fly an airplane into a building.
I turned on the classroom television, hoping to put an end to this latest rumor floating around school. Little did I know that my whole world was about to change because Josh and Cory had been right. I stepped back from the television, expecting to see one of the morning talk shows. Instead, the somber faces of Peter Jennings and other reporters filled the screen. The classroom grew silent as the reporters related that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
Over and over again we watched the video play of the second airplane crashing into the other tower. Plumes of white smoke poured into the bright blue sky. I struggled to grasp the enormity of what had happened. Before our eyes first one tower collapsed and then the other. There was no hope for the people left inside. The twin towers had their own zip code. How many thousands of people were killed when the towers crashed? What was it like for the people on the plane, knowing that they were going to crash into a building? Did they know what was coming? Not even the news reporters seemed sure of what was going on. I could not get my mind around the fact that terrorists had hijacked two, three, four airplanes and deliberately crashed them into buildings. Every time I thought of what it must have been like for the passengers on those planes, my mind ran into a brick wall. It couldn’t be possible.
Fear began to fill the room as other news reports filtered in. A plane had struck the Pentagon in Washington. Another plane was headed for the White House. A plane crashed in Pennsylvania. All airplanes had been ordered to land at the nearest airport. Where was my brother? He was a flight attendant for Delta. Had he been working on one of the planes that crashed?
Several students began to cry. I looked around the classroom. My students’ faces reflected the questions in my own mind. I was the teacher. I was supposed to have the answers to their questions, to know how to lead them through this crisis. But I didn’t have the answers. I didn’t know what to do. All I had was more questions. Could I cry in front of my students? How could I listen to their questions when my mind was racing with unanswered questions of my own? I struggled to think of what to tell them that could help them cope with what was happening.
All through the rest of the day, I watched the news reports with my classes. I still didn’t have any answers to their or my questions. I still don’t have answers today. I don’t know why any one would hate our country so much that they would be willing to die and to kill so many innocent people. As I seek to find a sense of peace and safety in a world that has been changed forever, I echo the prayer my daughter repeated before dinner each night for months after this day: God, please be with the people on the airplane and in the building.
Ten years later I still don’t have answers. I relate so well to Alan Jackson’s song “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning.” I will take time today to remember, to reflect, and to pray. I mourn for those who died and stand in awe of those who rushed to help. I give thanks that our country not only survived, but we have grown stronger as we pulled together.
How will you remember and honor the legacy of 9-11 today?