Saturday, September 11, 2010

September 11, 2001: A Day That Changed All of Us

On September 11th, 2001, I was teaching 4 and 5 year old children in a school that sits approximately three miles from The Pentagon.
It was our first week of school, our third day of school to be exact.
My little kindergarten students were in their reading groups, getting ready to work with English language objects.
I had an exceptionally young group that particular year, although they turned out to be so wise and calm, way beyond their ages...
I had 16 students and a full time teaching assistant.
Half of my class was Latino and knew little to no English. 
My assistant had a group of eight children and so did I.
We were just getting started with our activities when we heard a weird message on the intercom.
Thought how odd it was that they interrupted my class with this peculiar message, as it seemed like something they should have just sent someone from the office down to the particular room to pass on this message.
Well, as I looked at my assistant, she and I both kind of shrugged our shoulders and then, she said,
"You know, when I was hired years ago, I think that what that message said is a code for something."
I told her that that had not been discussed during my orientation, as I was brand new at the school and had just started to work there that year...
So, she went and dug out her old, worn handbook and as she flipped through the pages, I came up with little "sponge activities" to keep two tables of children in their seats until we could decipher what the message meant.

As she found the page, her face turned pale and I knew that something was horribly wrong.

She had me read the interpretation of the coded message and it read something along the lines of:
Eminent Terrorist Threat. In building or in immediately surrounding area of building. Lock doors and windows. Turn out lights. Put all children on the floor, as far as you can from the windows and doors. Do not make any noise whatsoever...

Because of our close proximity to The Pentagon, they must have had the foresight that they would need to have a way to notify classrooms without causing mass hysteria.

My assistant and I quickly complied and got all of these tiny children onto the floor.
We decided to tell them that it was like "the silence game", as we did not want them to cry or to be petrified. It was so dark in our room, and these little ones were so new to school...we did not know how it was going to work to keep them there.
Plus, at this moment, and for about the next hour or so, my assistant and I actually thought that the terrorists were in our building.
We sat there, totally quiet and in the dark, with all of our students doing the same and amazingly, no one asking to use the bathroom or even questioning why we were sitting there in the dark.
It was so eerie to be sitting there, wondering if the terrorists were outside our door.
The darkness was compounded by the sounds of the emergency vehicles and sirens that seemed to be going off virtually all around us.
Somehow, by the Grace of God, we all remained calm and exceptionally quiet and still.
It was if by Divine Intervention  / and maybe a little intuition, too, that the children knew what to do, as well as possibly, by the example that my assistant and I were trying to lead.
The instructions in the old handbook said that we were not to make any noise whatsoever, so we did not, but am quite certain that prayers were being said by at least myself and my assistant, as well as by some if not all of the children. 

After about a couple hours of or so of being on the floor, lo and behold, right at my classroom door, was Dear Hubby. (Dear Hubby and I were not married as of then, but had been dating for a while.)
Back then, he worked in an office in very close proximity to The White House and so, when they evacuated D.C., he took the Metro as far as he could take it until they then closed down the Metro, at which point he was left stuck in Virginia without a way home. So, he decided to walk to my school.
Dear Hubby was one of the few people actually allowed into the school building, as the building was in total lock down mode, but my principal knew Dear Hubby through me, as he and I were dating at the time, and he had a U.S. Government ID so she felt it would be okay to let him in and that if necessary, not only could he help me with my class, but he could help if we had to evacuate the building.
So, Dear Hubby came into the school and to my room, and then, he filled my assistant and me in on what was going on, both in New York and D.C.
None of us knew about what had happened in PA at this time.
My assistant then worried about what her children and her grandchild would be doing, as the entire area close to the Pentagon and all of D.C. was being evacuated, so I gave her permission to try to make an outgoing call.
None of our cell phones could get an outside line.
Now that we knew that the terrorists were not actually in our particular building, I let her leave the classroom to go across the hallway to the workroom that was there to use a phone that was in there for emergencies.
She was able to get an outside line there and left a voice mail message telling her family that we were okay and that they should just do for themselves until we were told we could leave.
I then was able to use this same phone and called and left a voice mail message on the 800 number that went to my dad's workplace.
We did not have texting at the time, nor did any cell phones using this emergency phone and leaving a couple of voice mails was the best we could do.

After several hours of having the children on the floor in the complete darkness, and without any food /drink / or bathroom breaks, I then sent Dear Hubby on a mission to go down the hall and to try to scrounge up some treats for the children and for us, as the kids were getting hungry but their cubbies were not accessible from where we were in the building.
 He managed to round up some change and got a couple bags of M &M's and some pretzels.
We gave each child a few of these goodies and then, around this time, the school social worker came around and she said that we were to continue to stay calm and to keep the children in the dark until further notice, but that to tell them that they had to clean the playground and this is why the shades had to be shut and the lights had to be out...
Okay, whatever...
But that is what she was officially instructed to say to us and what we were to tell them if they asked.
My students did not ask, so we did not have to share this with them.

The social worker gave us permission to have a VCR on to show a movie.
Luckily, one of my students had brought two videos to share during circle time.
Each child was to bring in an item that represented love for circle time and this is what she had chosen to bring, as she loved these movies...
So, we put in her selections and let me tell you, having a movie to watch has never been a more perfect thing to do than at that moment. We kept it so low that it was essentially on mute and one of the children suggested that it was so that we could make up our own story to go with what they were saying...

Around this time, people began to swarm the school and wanted to take their children home.

The school was still trying to figure out how to handle this so once again, the school social worker showed up at my door and said that they would start to come to collect one child at a time and that as a child left the room, they would say, "Your Mom (or Dad or Grandparent) is here. You have a dentist appointment."
The whole goal was to prevent mass hysteria and so, this is why they wanted to use the one at a time approach to dismissing children.
Luckily, my students were young and did not question this at all when the social worker told them this.
Some of them seemed happy that they were going to get to go to the dentist.

They all left and actually said that they had liked doing "No words movie day in the dark."

As the time wore on, we were then allowed to turn on the bathroom light in our classrooms.
The light from the bathroom and from coming off of the Television was enough light for us to be able to see, so I read the couple of remaining students a book by Kevin Henkes called Wemberly Worried.

I had purchased the little stuffed Wemberly Mouse character that went with the book so one of the girls, who seemed to intuitively sense that something was amiss, began to hug the mouse and continued to cuddle it until her family came to get her from school.

We were told that as soon as every student was dismissed from our respective classrooms that we were to leave but to know in advance that many of the nearby roads were going to be blocked off so to just try to get to someplace that the roads will let you go...

When it was finally time for us to leave, we found out a few things:
 One of my fellow colleagues' brothers was missing and presumed dead from the WTC, based on where he had last been heard from in the building.
Another fellow colleague was frantically trying to see if her parents were on the flight from Boston, as they were supposed to have been on that flight.
We also found out that there was virtually no way to get to my apartment at the time, as it was entirely blocked off and the only thing we could do is to try to head North to make our way to Dear Hubby's place.
So, that is what we did.
I had to stay there for the remainder of the week through the weekend.
So odd, as virtually everything was closed...
I had to borrow t-shirts from Dear Hubby as I did not have anything of mine with me for these days.
That night, as we laid there, it was so surreal.

Earlier in the day, as we were driving home, there was the continuous sound of sirens coming from buildings and from emergency vehicles. There were also the sounds of fighter jets (I am assuming that is what these were) but then, it went to a total and absolute silence.

No cars passing by, no airplanes overhead, and no emergency vehicles going by.

Just total quiet.

Hard to believe that so many years have passed.

Every 9/11 anniversary, I think of my dear former colleague who lost her brother whom she adored.
Also think of another wonderful former colleague who had worried that her parents had perished but then, got the best news of her life that they had missed the flight.
Think of my cousins, who worked near Ground Zero, but were not at their desks that particular morning.
Think of all of the Americans and Foreign Nationals who lost their lives that fateful day and extend my deepest sympathies to these families who lost loved ones. 
Think of the smell of smoke spewing up from The Pentagon that permeated the air as we were trying to figure a route away from my school. The sounds of enumerable sirens blaring from buildings and emergency vehicles, as well as the sight of the billowing smoke and the smell still haunts me.
Then, think of the day when we returned to school and some of the children knew every detail whereas others did not know a thing and that we were somehow supposed to keep it that way.
Had children who constructed The Pentagon and the WTC and then, re-enacted the crashes and the people falling to their deaths with the blocks and finger puppets in my room. 
Also, had children who chose to deal with this by drawing and painting images they had seen and heard about from their family.
We had to get counseling for some of the children, as they knew people either who had perished at The Pentagon or at the WTC.

Then, we had to try to redirect children away from working near any child who knew, as some families were adamant that they did not want their children to find out or know anything at all about this horrible day.
All in all, it was a life changing experience.

It made me ache to think that there are people out there who would hate the USA so much that they would be willing to do such a heinous act of terror against the people of this country I love.

My heart continues to go out to the families and friends who lost loved ones in such a senseless act of violence against America.

Dear Hubby and I formed an even closer bond through living and being together through this dark day, as it made me really feel so blessed to have such a wonderful, caring man in my life.

It also makes me proud that Dear Hubby has a role in trying to help to bring about change and good to a part of the world who seems to be so full of hatred.

United We Stand. One Nation, Under God.

We will never forget, nor will anyone else who lived through this day.

Photo used from creative commons license.


Leptir (NataĊĦa) said...

Colleen, it was a horrible experience. I cower when I was reading your post. I remember that day even though I was in Croatia. 13 of the Croats were in WTC towers - seven of them survived.
I was 21 yo, I just started working in the kindergarten (from 1st September 2001., I had small group of 3 year olds in the smallest classroom in my kindergarten).

HB said...

Beautiful, Colleen.

Personalized Sketches and Sentiments said...

Thank you for sharing your experience of this day. Your post captured every moment and it was like we were there with you in your classroom. So good to hear that your now-hubby was there with you during this time. That day seems still so fresh in my memory...I remember seeing the second plane fly into the tower and this really happening???

Thankful for all those serving...firefighters, medical, police, miitary....

Blessings & Aloha!

Mommy Moment said...

Wonderfully written Colleen - I can not imaging being so close to the Pentagon on 9/11.

Thank-you for linking up. It is good to read others stories.


The Sunshine Crew said...

Thank you for the nice comments, everyone.
Know that we all have prayed that something like this will never happen again. Only hope that hearts will change and that all people will learn to be peaceful and loving.

Jennifer said...

My Dad had had an early morning meeting in NY an was on the bridge from NY to NJ when the second plane fly into the WTC. He saw it approach and hit. He managed to make it back to his office in NJ, but was later hospitalized due to chest pains. It is a day he will not talk about, but will never forget.

I lived in FL at the time. Ryan was just a baby, and I was babysitting a little girl the same age. Her Mom arrived and said, "A plane crashed into the WTC." I didn't understand. Thinking it was just a little plane, I said, "What, it wasn't big enough to see?"

I didn't watch TV all day. Not until a neighbor called "just to talk with someone about what was going on."

September 11, 2001 is certainly a day no American will forget for many years to come, and yet, now living in the multi-national Washington, D.C., I am concerned about the level of anxiety and mistrust it has set into motion.

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