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.