I’d stepped out of the classroom for just a moment, to get a ream of paper from the supply closet, and one of my fellow co-workers stopped me. “You can’t tell the kids,” she said. “But something terrible happened.”
The events of 9/11 were already well under way, but that was when it started for me. Word passed quickly, from teacher to teacher, and soon a very brief memo came around from the office (email still being rather new and not often checked) warning us not to tell the students since we didn’t know if they might have families members in danger.
The day is a blur in my memory, but I remember the struggle to keep teaching, to keep smiling, to pretend everything was normal. Many internet sites were down, but my husband worked at a local ISP and through his site I was able to read the news reports as they came in – the second plane, the fall of the towers, the crash of the fourth airplane right in my own state. Whenever the students were busy at their desks, I printed out the reports and passed them to colleagues with no internet access.
And I kept teaching.
All day long, the intercom kept breaking into my lessons: “Please send Susie for dismissal. Send Johnny with his things to the office. Please send Mary and Sam. They’re going home early.”
My students were fifth graders and not stupid. “What’s going on?” they asked. “Why are so many kids being picked up?”
“I don’t know,” I lied. And then I added honestly, “I wish MY mother would come pick ME up.” They laughed. I didn’t.
At lunch time, one of the teachers tried to make her rabbit-ear television work, and we got brief glimpses of New York City. The principal stuck her head in the room and said quietly, “I’m not going to tell you what to do. But we have to finish out the day, and watching will only make it harder.” It only took a couple minutes for me to realize she was right. I returned to my classroom to figure out how I was going to keep on teaching that afternoon.
Toward the end of the longest day of my teaching career, we hit a snafu. The PTA printed up a half sheet of paper to send home that said: Due to today’s events, all afternoon activities are cancelled. That might have been fine for the first graders, but my students could read.
“What events?” they demanded. “What’s going on?”
One little girl looked me in the eye and said, “Something happened, Mrs. Salerni. Some of the teachers are crying.”
“Yes, something happened,” I had to say. “But far away from here, in another part of the country. You’ll see it on TV when you go home.” They barraged me with questions, but all I could do – following orders – was tell them they were safe and that it had happened somewhere else.
After school, I finally was able to let it out. I bawled all the way through the drive to pick up my own children in daycare. I had never felt so helpless and scared in my life.
Almost ten years later, in May of this year, I went out to the local convenience store and the young man behind the counter asked me, “Hey, aren’t you Mrs. Salerni? I had you in fifth grade, but you probably don’t remember me.” He told me his name, and I assured him I DID remember him. He grinned sheepishly. “I was kind of a trouble maker.”
“You were lively,” I admitted.
And then he got a funny look on his face. “They got BinLaden last night. Do you realize you were my 9/11 teacher?”
I remembered this boy, but I didn’t remember what year I had him. I shook my head. He went on, “I’ll never forget that day. You told us something bad had happened, far away, but we were safe. You were trying not to cry, but you told us we were all safe. I remember that.”
I tried very hard not to cry in front of him again.
Made me cry reading this. So hard to know what to do with all the emotions around this event, when there’s nothing to do. I remember really wanting to go help, to go to New York. But my daughter was 2, I couldn’t go. Sigh.
It is amazing how one day can have such an effect on our lives. Your story brought me to tears. Thank you for sharing.
And here you’ve brought tears to my eyes, too…
You did well.
beautiful tribute, D.
You were my 9/11 teacher too. But my mom picked me up pretty early, so I missed a lot of that. But I do remember you telling me I didn’t have to worry about the math homework. I was happy about that until I got home.
Oh, my heck. You just made me cry with this. Twice! Thanks a lot.
“One little girl looked me in the eye and said, “Something happened, Mrs. Salerni. Some of the teachers are crying.””
““I’ll never forget that day. You told us something bad had happened, far away, but we were safe. You were trying not to cry, but you told us we were all safe. I remember that.””
Thanks for sharing.
Our oldest, who is now a freshman in college, was in the 3rd grade at Ruckersville Elementary School. The events of 9/11 were made known to the students at RES during that day, perhaps not the best of decisions. Because in elementary schools the teachers are your neighbors, Robin’s teacher came up to us a few evenings later, to say how worried she was about her uncle, my brother, who worked in NYC. It turned out that Eric didn’t go into the city that morning, as he was running late getting out of his apartment in Jersey City, and missed his train. Unfortunately on 9/11, there was nothing that her teacher could really do other than to try an reassure the class. I think it would have been kinder to both the class and the teacher to use your approach. Thank you!
dammit dianne! I’m crying now. I don’t think anyone can forget where they were when they heard. I was in a University of Connecticut lecture hall when our teacher came in very late and made the announcement that a second plane had hit the towers. Class was dismissed early and there was no school for the next couple of days. I remember watching on the community television. There were people on the roof and the helicopters were flying overhead and I kept thinking ‘why aren’t they picking up those people? Where’s the ladder hanging down like in the movies?’ and then a minute later, the buildings collapsed and I knew we’d just watched people die before our eyes. We cried and hugged eachother, in complete shock, called our parents, and my music teacher called in an emergency practice the next day. His daughter had worked in the twin towers for four years. She was fired the week before the terrorist attempts. We worked our butts off to give a concert of Mozarts Requiem in all the biggest concert halls where the proceeds went to help the victims/their families and the clean up effort. Every time I hear that piece of music, a lump forms in my throat.
It’s been hard watching TV this weekend and reading blog posts about 9/11. It’s been very emotional remembering everything that happened that day and all the days to follow. Your story, like so many others, has brought tears to my eyes.
One of my 911 students now lives on Long Island. I remember that say like it was yesterday. We had the same orders…For us it was the last day before a 5 week fall break. I put my babies (fourth graders) on the bus with big hug. Or if they had parent pick up, I hugged them before they left my room. We didn’t have cable or anything. We couldn’t even get a radio station in our rooms. The kids were dismissed early because of teacher in service. They made us stay for the in-service. I don’t think it was beneficial for any of us. We needed to be at home with our families…
Those kiddos are still so important to me. When we came back after break one of them had her sister and brother kidnapped and taken over seas and another student’s mother was seriously ill.
Wow…I’m exhausted after thinking about those babies on that day…
Thanks so much for sharing your story of that day.
This comment has been removed by the author.