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Back to School on September 11th
By Katy Snow Burns
17, Aug 2002 - 19:32

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After setting four alarm clocks, and checking them constantly through the night, I was wide awake at 5:45, nervous yet excited to begin my day. At 7:00, I pulled on my new hot pink Lilly Pulitzer skirt with a freshly starched white blouse and quickly checked my reflection in the wooden floor length mirror in our bedroom.

“See you later,” I called out, and plunked down the narrow hardwood steps towards the kitchen in my clunky Steve Madden shoes.
“Hey,” I heard over the clatter, “Where’s my kiss?” I turned on the step and paused, mildly annoyed that my schedule had been interrupted. Turning, I walked back upstairs and into the gray tiled bathroom that was filling with hot steam. Two minutes or less, I thought. I want to get there soon. Chris’ head was peeking out of the shower, around the white curtain looking like a fish with his eyes squinted tight and lips puckered waiting for his forgotten kiss. I smiled when I saw him and kissed his wet mouth softly.

“Knock ‘em dead, Teach,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “Love you, I’ll see you tonight.”
“Love you too.”

As I walked the four blocks to P.S. #5 I scolded myself for not wanting to make the time to kiss him good-bye. It was only a minute, why did I have to be so impatient?

I knew. It was my fourth day teaching the third grade in my very first classroom. My head was swimming with names foreign to me: Rodolfo, Shevanee, Xavier, Joan, Maranllely, Auronny. Were those boys or girls? J-O-A-N looked like the woman’s name Joan but was pronounced joe-AHN and belonged to a seven year old boy. One name down and twenty-eight to go, I’d better do something well.

That their parents dropped them off to spend a day with me growing their minds made me faint with self-doubt. Did they know this was my fourth day ever working with kids? Or that I chose this particular school because it was so close to my Jersey City apartment?

When I arrived, early, I unlocked my classroom door, quickly glanced out the hall window at the warm, fire-orange view of the sun rising through the New York City skyline and walked into my new room ready to prepare for my day. The classroom had already been decorated and organized for students to learn, thanks to help from a friendly veteran teacher who had recognized my anxiety. Walls were brightened by an alphabet poster, a growth chart, lists of rules and consequences, a Shel Silverstein poem, a step-by-step cursive stroke chart and a poster with words to the “Pledge of Allegiance” hanging next to our fraying flag. Learning centers were stocked with a small library of books, computers, a set of base-ten blocks, a multiplication chart, rulers, paper clocks, a sparkling set of microscopes, a spider plant and a colorful reading rug with a hopscotch pattern.

I quickly began my new routine of completely erasing the chalkboard and neatly printing the daily journal assignment and the date. “Good Morning!” I wrote in cheery large letters in the middle of the board. Then I wrote, “Daily Journal: What is your favorite school memory? Write 6 complete sentences.” I looked at that for a moment and underlined the word complete. Underneath that I wrote, “Problem of the day: Mario has 10 stickers and his sister Lucy has 7 stickers. Their mom gives them each 2 more stickers. How many stickers do they have in all?” At the top right side of the board I wrote the date, “September 11, 2001.”

My quiet preparation was soon interrupted by laughter and chatter as my students arrived at 8:30. We began the day according to our new schedule. Morning announcements start with a whole school recitation in English and Spanish of the Pledge of Allegiance, our school pledge and singing of our National Anthem. When Dr. Ramos finished speaking to the school, I turned to my class and explained their morning assignment. A hand shot up, “Mrs. Burns, I can’t read those two letters over there. We don’t know handwriting yet.” Hm. I supposed my printed “m” did connect with the “o” a bit. Was it that hard to figure out? Yes, I guess it was.

Lillian continued, “In second grade we only had to write in 5 sentences.” I explained to the class that in third grade they will be writing more than in second grade. They will be writing three paragraphs by June. Gasps.

“Today we only have to write 6 sentences, but let’s get busy.” Heads went down to begin work.
“Mrs. Burns?” I heard from outside my door. My aide, Dominga, stood at the door and looked at me blankly. I walked over towards her, watching my students write. Quietly she said, “A teacher down the hall was just looking out her window and saw a plane fly into the World Trade Center.”

“Huh?” I said glancing around the room. “Xavier, get busy, you have only a few minutes.”
“Look out the hall window,” Dominga insisted.

I peeked around my door to look at the same spot where I watched the sun rise beyond Wall Street and the Twin Towers an hour earlier. Although a mile from the area, a state away with a river dividing us, I enjoyed our clear view of the World Trade Center. Looking down Christopher Columbus Drive it appeared that if you walked to the end, you would be standing in the lobby. Now, one building on one side had that same fire-orange color spouting out the windows and through the right side of the building. Weird, this will be on the news tonight, I thought. I turned and walked back toward my students deciding to not mention the fire to them quite yet.

As the kids wrote I walked around their desks helping them with their spelling. My mind wandered back to that image. Strange, I thought. It must have been a new pilot in a small plane who just clipped a wing on the building. “Mrs. Burns,” I heard, “Carlos is bothering me. He keeps pushing the table and I can’t write.”

I spoke to Carlos and then gathered the students to do journal sharing. As Samuel began slowly reading to the class my mind wandered. Chris! I hadn’t thought of that. The World Financial Center where he works is next door to the World Trade Center. I’m sure it’s fine, I thought. It’s a fire very high up in a different building.

A hysterical scream broke my thoughts. “There’s another one!” Everyone looked around and I told them to sit down and continue. In the hallway just in front of our door a group of teachers stared out the window with the view. I looked out to see both building tops aflame like two lit matches sticking into the sky.

I flagged down Dominga to stay with the confused kids and ran to use my cell phone. It’s okay, it’s okay. I thought. Chris doesn’t work there, he’s safe next door. Had he mentioned that he would be in the World Trade Center today? I’d been so distracted lately that I seemed to only half listen to my husband’s descriptions of his new job at Merrill Lynch, the reason we’d just moved here from Chicago. What time had he gotten to the PATH train, I wondered? A sinking feeling came over me. The train that he takes from Jersey City arrives in the lobby of the World Trade Center. He has to walk through there to get to his building.

I frantically dialed his line but there was no phone service. After a few tries I walked anxiously into my classroom. Dominga stood in the doorway looking at fifteen pairs of puzzled eyes. “Did you tell them anything?” I asked her quietly.

“No,” she said. “Is Chris okay?”
I shrugged.

She explained that some parents had come to pick up their children. I nodded slowly, thinking that this was turning into a much larger event than I’d realized. Dominga walked out of the room leaving me alone with the children. I could hear a radio report coming from down the hall, but I tuned it out not wanting to know. For a moment, I wished I could turn the clock back a few hours to that moment in the bathroom.

Kayla raised her hand, bringing my thoughts back to right now. “Mrs. Burns, why was that lady screaming?”

Instinct jumped in and replaced the insecurity I felt with these children. I sat them on our colorful rug and explained to them that there had been an accident and a fire in the Twin Towers. We talked for a few minutes, and I told the students I didn’t know much about what had happened. I positioned them away from the window to avoid having them watch live the scene they would end up seeing hundred of times repeated later on TV or on their parent’s video recorders.

A sea of hands waved in front of me.
“Do they have fire escapes on the Twin Towers?”
“Why did the planes crash into the buildings?”
“Did people die?” I told them honestly that I didn’t know.

The next few hours crawled and my mind was a blur. We read stories and did busy work. I tried to avoid thinking about the image of dust shadows where skyscrapers stood and pressed redial on my cell phone waiting for a signal. I wouldn’t let myself think about the possibilities of where he could be. Instead, I talked with the students about their fears.

“Is my dad alive? He works in New York,” asked Benjamin. What to say?
“Mrs. Burns,” asked Marie shaking, “If a mom has AIDS and she has the baby will the nurse get AIDS from the blood?” What?
“Marie, don’t worry about that now,” I told her gently.
“Mrs. Burns, if your husband died I’ll be sad for him,” said Dominique.
“We aren’t going to worry about that now either,” I told her. But appearing strong was wearing on me.

I tried to push the bits of information and rumors whispered in the hallway among the teachers. Thousands dead. Seven planes still unaccounted for. American Airlines. Ellis Island and Statue of Liberty may be next. Possible bioterrorism. The Pentagaon. The events were so close to us yet felt so far away. The fighter jets roaring over our heads made me feel vulnerable and mortal. Yet I was fortunate. I hadn’t been in a building hit by an airplane, hadn’t seen the fire, the body parts or the sheer terror that other innocent workers were right now witnessing across the Hudson River. I was in a school with young children calming their fears, yet not succeeding in suppressing my own. Even if I found that my husband survived I could never feel joy. Hundreds of families were already torn apart, and I felt helpless.

The call came at 11:47 while the six students still in class watched me anxiously. “He’s alive,” I cried. The kids’ cheers made him weep. I quieted them, thinking that events within their own families may not have the same ending. After hearing about his safe escape, I promised Chris a kiss when he was able to return home.

By the end of the day, only two students remained. I waited for their moms to arrive and then quickly walked home alone. It was 24 hours before Chris could find a way to return to our apartment. As I waited, in fear, all night, I reflected on the days’ events. As horrific, awful and as unimaginable as the day ended, I had begun the day thinking that handling the children would be the toughest part. Instead, talking with the children and calming their fears is what got me through the day. I had no time to be afraid.

Teaching this past year, my first year, was a huge challenge. I wasn’t a great teacher and made a million mistakes. Yet when I look back to the way school began last year I am proud of my strength. This year I know I will be prepared and confident as the first days of school begin again.

© Copyright 2002 by © Contributor(s) and Castlebar Web Pages 1997 - 2018

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