It seems to be the Done Thing right now to reflect on where one was, ten years ago when two planes hit two towers and the world that we knew changed.
I was a twenty-something newbie teacher, moving through my second year at the head of one of three classrooms in a non-public school. The kids that we served were the toughest of the tough–ages 6 to 22, all sent to us from school districts unable to cope with the extent of their health, developmental, or behavior needs. The majority were non-verbal; most were aggressive. We loved those kids. Ten years later, I remain in touch with colleagues: we still love those kids. At the time, some of those kids were older than some of us.
I lived with nine other people in a five-bedroom house: we made it work by turning every room with a closing door into a bedroom. My room was the sun porch: one wall was made of glass. As I stumbled from bed to coffee on the way to work, my housemate, a struggling theater artist, told me what had happened. A plane crashed into a building. Two planes crashed into two buildings. It wasn’t an accident. It might happen somewhere else. I remember being struck, in that instance, by how non-dramatic he was as he said this.
It didn’t even occur to me to not go to work. My school, at the best of times, was a chaotic and loving place–every day was a blur of need and activity. Many of our students needed one-on-one assistance, and frequent behavioral emergencies required up to four staff members to prone-restrain one child. Beyond my work ethic, though, was another reason. I remember a visual flash, in quick sequence: first, the television sitting in the house’s living room, then the couch at my school after the students went home. I knew where I wanted to be, when there was finally time to sit and make sense of it. If anything happened, I wanted whatever it was to find me there, at school.
As I got into the car, I looked up at the sky. I remember realizing that I’d never before done that in exactly that way.
The day was surreal. Most of our students had profound mental disabilities: we didn’t think it was right to bring it up. Some students in the prevocational class may have known something, but in my classroom, the routine unfolded as it always did. Put one with one. Touch “yellow”. Hit the big switch to ask for more snack.
And throughout the day, little snatches of news, spoken in low voices when the students weren’t listening. I don’t honestly remember when I found out what.
In the days and weeks after the attacks, educators throughout the country grappled with the question of what and how to teach. At my school, we walked a delicate line–conscious always to normalize our school as much as possible by mimicking the structures of the regular system, we put each classroom teacher in charge of whole-school curriculum in one particular area. Mine was social studies. I was at a loss.
How do you explain to a non-verbal child who has no voluntary motor movements beyond eye gaze and grasping that there were people a world away who thought her country was the devil? How can you convey the enormity of the sacrifices made by so many to a boy who spends most waking hours trying to hit his head against a wall? In the end, I did an internet search for the address of the public school closest to Ground Zero: we drew pictures and wrote letters, and went on a field trip to mail the package at the post office, four blocks away.
I remember the broken English dictated to us by Ahmed, our only student who was served at the 2-to-1 ratio. Our school was his last stop before an institution. At 18, he was almost seven feet tall, fiendishly strong, and violent when upset: the two people were necessary so that one person could clear the area of everyone else, while the other person used evasion tactics to get him to a room where we could shut the door if needed. Ahmed was cognitively delayed and fell somewhere on the spectrum; in time, though, we saw a warmth and humor in him that others had missed.
“My school before was not good. Now I go to good school. I am sorry that your school was hurt. Maybe you have new school too some day.”
I think now, ten years later, of what happened and how we–as a school, as a country, as a world–handled it back then. And there are moments of which I can feel deeply proud.
Now, we struggle to teach 9-11 in a climate of increasing partisanship and fear, in a broken educational system where, as the Oakland Tribune reported today, we literally cannot afford new books that tell about it. Are we safer? Are we better? It’s so hard to know.