Sunday, September 11, 2011
WHAT ABOUT MY DAD, MRS. C.?
September 11, 2001…I was a reading resource teacher at an elementary school in New Mexico. My classroom was a separate portable. My students came to me in small groups from their classes to learn the skills of reading. They ranged from 4th to 6th grade. Most of my students just called me Mrs. C.
That year had already been one of upheaval for me. My husband of 32 years left that April. My children were grown and out of the house.....spread out between three states. My middle son was in the military reserves. My daughter had just given birth to my first grandchild...a girl, Erin. My parents were in Kentucky, my brothers in Illinois and Idaho.
I was very much alone in rural New Mexico..
There was a group of us that always arrived at school before 7 a.m. I was standing outside our young counselor’s office discussing the anticipated arrival of her husband, who had been on an extended business trip. His plane had taken off an hour before. Someone bumped my shoulder in passing saying that a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers.
Our library was in the center of the school surrounded by glass walls…I could look down the hall and see our group starting to gather there. New Mexico is 2 hours behind New York…we had lots of time to check this out. The counselor and I went to join with the rest of the early arrival teachers to see what had happened.
At that time the Twin Towers barely registered on my radar. But as we watched we saw the 2nd plane hit…. this was an attack. Then the crash into the Pentagon was announced. By that time our principal had arrived. He was saying that we had to go on with our day and to just teach. We had to keep the children calm and unaware of what had happened. He said we should not turn on the TVs in our rooms.
The bell rang….
The principal meant well but he did not consider, that by the time the kids arrived, most had already seen the attack on TV before they got to school. Some parents kept their children home…but most came.
My my first group of five students came through my door. All were full of questions. They were scared and confused about what was happening. Among them was Steven.
Steven was a strikingly handsome 5th grade boy with green eyes and sandy hair. He was bright, curious, intuitive and dyslexic. His parents had just gone through a bitter divorce. His father was a fighter pilot in the Air Force and currently based in California. Steven and his dad were very close…this separation had been terrible for both of them.
Steven kept looking at the blank TV while maintaining a constant rocking motion in his chair. I touched him on his shoulder … he just looked at me and blurted out, WHAT ABOUT MY DAD MRS. C.? I HAVE TO KNOW!
The other kids at the table agreed with him. What was going on?
So…..considering that my principal had NEVER visited my portable..... I took a chance, defied orders, and turned on the TV.
We could only get ABC. Peter Jennings was in his shirt sleeves, looking very haggard, and telling us what was happening in real time.
We sat, the five kids and me, watching. And as we watched they asked:
WHO MRS. C? (Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden ..probably..(I still do not know how I knew that) )
WHY MRS. C.? ( Evil…that is their only reason…evil wants to hurt)
WHERE MRS. C.? (New York City, Washington DC, Pennsylvania)
ARE THEY COMING HERE MRS. C.? (No, they wanted to hurt places that stood for our success, and protection, and freedom…we are too small…you are safe)
And all the while Steven sat next to me holding my hand under the table.
The bell rang…time for the next group to come in. Steven looked at me, reluctantly let go of my hand, and slowly left.
As the kids arrived they saw the TV on and all just sat down at the table. They had the same questions…and asked why their teachers did not have the TV on like me? I told them that nobody wanted them to be upset. One little girl, Gabby, said, IT IS BETTER TO KNOW. I told her I thought so too.
Then my phone rang. It was Steven’s teacher. She told me that he wanted to come back to me because he was worried about his dad. She tried to call his mother but there was no answer. She said he refused to go to the counselor...he just wanted Mrs. C. He could not concentrate on his work…she asked if it would be a problem…I told her to send him. Odd how none of the kids told that I had the TV on.
So Steven returned… sat down next to me…took hold of my hand …and asked again, WHAT ABOUT MY DAD MRS. C.?
I told him his father was a protector. The planes that were crashing were passenger planes, not fighter jets. I said that it was his dad’s job to fight these terrible people and that he was a hero for wanting to do that. I told him his father was REALLY good at his job and it would keep him safe. And I told him that his father would feel how much Steven loved him because we were sitting here... holding hands... and thinking powerful thoughts about him..
Steven stayed with me all that day. My small groups of students filed in and out…all with questions about what they were seeing. We watched together and I tried to help them make sense out of this terrible day and to calm their anxieties with information about what they were seeing.
During lunch I got calls from the lunch aides…some of my students had asked to eat in Mrs. C.s room….was that ok? So they filed in and we sat with our trays of school lunch and watched the buildings in rubble, and the people covered in ash, and the stricken looks on the first responders. NONE of the kids had said anything to anybody about me having the TV on.
And the whole time Steven just held onto my hand.
MY DAD, MRS.C…HE‘S OK RIGHT? I said, I KNOW he is ok Steven. He will call you as soon as he is able. Don't worry if it is not right away…he is a soldier and has to do his duty first. Steven just nodded and got on the bus.
The school day was over…our counselor’s husband’s plane had been grounded, along with every other plane flying over America. He was safe, but did not know when he would get back. I went home. I called my kids, my parents, and my brothers...we all tried to connect and reassure each other over the distance that separated us..
I turned on the TV, and with my three dogs curled beside me, watched, alone, as the horrors of 9/11 continued to unfold.
That evening the phone rang….it was Steven’s mother. All she said was that Steven had to talk to me.
YOU WERE RIGHT MRS.C.! MY DAD JUST CALLED! HE’S OK! HE SAID HE KNEW I WAS THINKING ABOUT HIM! HE FELT ME IN HIS HEART MRS. C.!
I told Steven how happy I was to hear this good news...I told him tomorrow was going to be a good day…
YES IT IS MRS.C.! GOOD BYE MRS.C! YOU'RE MY REALLY BEST TEACHER MRS.C.!
Steven’s mother got back on the phone and said Steven told her how I never let go of his hand (she was crying)…I did not tell her that he also never let go of mine.
Steven learned to read. He moved the following year. I never saw him again. He would be about 20 years old now. I know he remembers.
But what Steven will never know is this.... On September 11, 2001, his hand, clinging to mine, was the only meaningful human touch I had..… it was all and everything good on a very, VERY bad day.