Shadows in Connecticut

On September 11, 2001, a middle school classroom lost what was left of innocence.

“Mr. Walsh, somebody just bombed the Empire State Building!”

As a middle school teacher, I’ve gotten used to statements like this as I start my day.

“Settle down, Edward, and take out your homework log. The homework’s on the board.” The words tumbled out of me as they had thousands of times before, and I flipped open to my lesson plan for the day.

“No, Mr. Walsh — I’m serious! We heard it on the radio just before my mom dropped me off at school!”

“It wasn’t the Empire State Building, you rockhead,” came a voice from the back of the room, “It was the World Trade Center. And it wasn’t bombed, some floors just caught on fire.”

“Annette, did you just call Edward a ‘rock head’ in my classroom?” In true teacher fashion, my radar was only tuned in to certain frequencies, and name-calling is a big mistake.

“It wasn’t a few floors, Annette! They said the whole upper half of the building was exploding!”

“Edward, I think we’ve heard enough from you this morning, thanks. Annette, I want to speak with you after class.” It was my business voice, the one the kids knew better than to question. “Now, everyone, please take out your homework logs so that we can get on with class.”

“It was a plane,” said Luwanda, who would normally prefer ripping out her fingernails to speaking up in class. “They were interviewing eyewitnesses on the Morning Zoo. Nobody’s playing music.”

Up until then, I could easily dismiss what was being said. After all, these were the same students who’d told me that there was now scientific evidence that Bigfoot was living in Bridgeport, that Germany had just cloned the lead singer of Radiohead, and that people could get AIDS by touching fruit from open-air stands in New York City, among other reports.

Luwanda, however, gave this story a horrible credence.

“Look, maybe a small plane crashed into one of the towers, I don’t know. It’s happened before with the Empire State Building, so they know how to handle it.” The kids looked at me, trying to figure out which one of us they should believe. “For now, I want you to write down the homework and open up to your notes on dependent clauses and conjunctive adverbs.”

The reality was that I had many kids in that room whose mothers or fathers worked in the towers. I wanted to keep their minds off whatever had happened until I got a better handle on the truth. For once, I was looking at the clock as much as they were, all of us willing the hands to move faster so that we could glean a little more information in between classes.

When the bell rang, I rushed to a colleague’s room and found other teachers already huddled around a small radio.

“A plane hit the North Tower about 40 minutes ago, and another just hit the South,” someone said as I came in.

I had arrived at school at 6:55 a.m., and the only news item had been that it was opening day of the United Nations General Assembly. Ironically, just four days earlier they had established Sept. 21 as the International Day of Peace.

“Are the air traffic control towers out, or something?” I asked.

The announcer on the radio answered that for me: “It appears that the planes were flown into each tower on purpose …”

We all looked up at each other, horrified at the implications. Spared the gruesome images that were plastered across every TV screen in the country at that moment, we quickly assembled a plan to get our students through the day.

Out of necessity, we minimized the extent of the tragedy as we returned to our classes and inundated our students with work to avoid questions. I struggled to maintain a sense of routine, fumbling through the “joke of the day” I use to start off every class even while I worried about friends and family who worked in the vicinity of the World Trade Center.

In those first few hours, the rumors were flying: we were under attack; more planes would hit soon; a bomb had just taken out the Pentagon; the transit system was probably the next target … At the first mention of the dangers to local trains, I thought of my wife, a mere half-hour outside the city. She took the train every day, and neither of us had cell phone service that day. It was the longest day of my life as my mind kept coming up with new and more deadly hurdles she might have between her and our house.

By 9:30 a.m., the cars started lining up outside the school. The office began interrupting classes with long lists of students whose parents had come to pick them up, and a sense of panic rippled through the student body despite our best efforts. It was obvious that something big was going on: If the teachers had been wrong about the severity of the morning events, what else might they be hiding from us?

By the time the principal made the official announcement about the towers at 10:00 a.m., we had already been asked to lower the blinds and turn off the lights. The surreal atmosphere intensified when we were next told to turn off our computers and stay off the phones.

Soon the cell phones — which our students kept hidden in pockets against school policy — began to ring out an eerie soundtrack of happy jingles as we struggled to read with what little light streamed around the blinds. I’d heard Pink Floyd singing for years about the World War II bombing raids on London; suddenly, those descriptions seemed far too real.

Students who had family in the towers were asked to go down to the office, where they huddled with the school psychologists and guidance counselors as they waited for news. The rest of us tried to scrape through the day without betraying our own fears. Between classes, we snatched what new information we could from radio reports; the news Web sites had all crashed due to volume. Our cell phone calls into the city failed to connect, falling victim to the demise of a mammoth cell phone tower that had already disappeared into the rubble.

As soon as the buses came to pick up the kids at the end of the day, we scurried to our homes, desperate to touch our loved ones and sort through the implications in safety. My wife was home before I was, and we spent the night in front of the flickering images from CNN. We ate frozen dinners as Aaron Brown, on his first day anchoring the news, commented on which teetering building around the towers was about to fall next. We stayed up all night as various plots were proposed and everyone grappled with what would happen tomorrow. We waited for the call from school that would tell us whether or not to stay home. It never came.

For us, 9/11 is not the day that changed our lives; it was 9/12. As the towers fell on that terrible Tuesday, our heads were swimming with the fear of additional attacks. We were numbed with shock, unable to process the empty spaces where the towers had been. On Wednesday morning we awoke to the realization that the destruction of the skyline in the economic capital of the world was far too … easy. Suddenly, we were on the front lines of something to which many of us had been blissfully unaware: America was not safe from those who opposed her. Threats to her existence were no longer limited to those with standing armies, and true vengeance would be almost impossible in this new world order.

In the following weeks and months, our school rallied to the cause. We put on bake sales to help the victims; we repainted our cafeteria in red, white, and blue; we supported those in our community who had been directly affected by the attacks. I have never been prouder of my seventh graders than I was at this uncertain moment in our national history. Where many teachers had taken to bashing students’ weak moral values and poor work ethic, they now saw first-hand what the future of this country can do when faced with a crisis.

Unfortunately, the legacy of that day has forever changed the lives of children in America. Field trips are altered or cancelled altogether due to security concerns, and the violence we once decried in their video games has been trumped by what they see on the nightly newscasts of the war on terror.

At school, we’ll mark the anniversary of the tragedy with a moment of silent meditation and a series of discussions in social studies classes. However, the peaceful silence we enjoyed before 9/11 is gone forever. Now, we keep waiting to hear another bulletin. We wonder if they (whoever “they” are) have a sense of occasion, if they view anniversaries like the one we celebrate today with the same weight that we do. The silence is uneasy.

For us, the towers might not stand today, but their shadows remain in Connecticut.

Article © 2006 by Robert F. Walsh