9/11/20 and the Country Crumbles Around Us, Again

Nineteen years ago I sat at this same desk, looking out this same window. I still get up at the same early hour, teach the same grade level, same subject. I still don’t watch the morning news, but now in 2020 it’s for vastly different reasons.

I have the same husband, same children, and even the same hair color – although, after the last six months living through the pandemic, it’s definitely showing signs of grey, appropriately matching the smoke in my California sky. and the emotions in my heart.

Sameness.

Nineteen years ago we realized that the world would never be the same – not for those of us living through the attack on the World Trade Center.

The attack on our citizens in our own country.

The attack on our sense of security.

In 2001, I still woke early – but then it was to find some ‘me’ time before my babies greeted the day and my focus shifted. Today, my babies are adults, living in some other house, in some other states.

In 2001, I’d never even visited New York, I had trouble imagining visiting many places with a three-year-old, a 23-month-old, a full-time teaching job, and just, life. Today in 2020, I imagine visiting my 24-year-old and my 21-year-old on Zoom, in between teaching virtual classrooms and a pandemic.

Now, in retrospect, I’m glad I made it to New York before 2020, before the idea of getting on a plane terrified me – not because I fear dying from more acts of terrorism like 9/11, but because I fear dying from the terror of COVID-19.

I fear never seeing those places I dream of visiting, those places that just six months ago awaited exploration and checking off my bucket list.

Did any of us ever imagine there could be a horror greater than 9/11 in our country? That more people would die in a week, a day, of a disease that COULD HAVE BEEN PREVENTED, than died on September 11, 2001?

Today, September 11, 2020, I’ll stay safe inside my house. I’ll still look out the same windows, still listen to the morning news, still prepare to teach 7th grade English, just like on September 11, 2001.

Today, though, I’ll stay safe from COVID and wildfires. I’ll look out at smoke and ask swirling outside my window, listen to the morning news not about unbelievable loss in New York City but this year, unbelievable loss across our country and our world.

I’ll still prepare to teach 7th grade English, but this year it will be from my ‘classroom’ down the hall, in front of a camera, unable to hug and comfort and look into the eyes of my students. This year, I’ll teach them how I’ll never forget that September 11 morning in my classroom with students. I’ll share with them how shocked and scared and silent we all were, wondering what would happen next.

But still, just like 9/11/2001, I’ll smile and still remind students that I’m there for them, to be a stable adult for them amidst the chaos, just like I did nineteen years ago.

Not at all like September 11, 2001 – but why do I feel the same sense of overwhelming sadness, anxiety, and fear for my children? For our country?

What follows is a re-posting of my 9/11 reflection, written nine years ago – before the country crumbled once again before my eyes. Back in 2011, when the comfort of a decade of healing gave me a little bit of room to breathe. Then, looking back when an ordinary day was something we dreamed about.

Still, the same.

It may never be an ordinary day again. But now, in 2020, for vastly different reasons.

9/11: It started like any ordinary day. 

  After maternity leave, I’m still getting the hang of getting out of the house on time each morning. I’m up early enough to have some ‘me’ time – 5:30 a.m. – before the pitter patter of my 23-month-old boy’s feet signal the start of mommy-time. 

Must plan Cameron’s birthday party for next weekend, I think.Coffee made, candles lit, I start up the desktop as part of my morning ritual, eager to check email and read the news.   Having children broke us of our TV news habit when we realized they were transfixed with images of stark reality we were trying so desperately to shelter them from.  

  A breaking news alert flashes into my inbox – “Plane crashes into building in New York.”  Hmm.  I’ve never been to New York.  Worlds away from my cozy study.  I hope it’s nothing serious.   Pitter patter pitter patter…here comes my boy, blankie, and book in hand.  My heart thrills at the sight of his big round head.  “Make sister juice,” he chimes with a smile as big as any Cheshire cat. 

I switch off the computer, eager to start the morning snuggle and reading time.  It is just another ordinary day.   The 11-mile commute to school is nothing unusual.  I drive past the harvested tomato fields, crop dusters skim the highway.  Lesson plans fill my mind.  Exit right, then left, then straight down the walnut tree-shrouded road towards Douglass Junior High, where my 7th grade English students stand lined up, waiting for me.  

“Hey, did you hear about the plane crash?” they shout as I open the door.  

“Yes, I did,” I answer, and switch on the lights.  “Let’s get started.”  

“But, can’t we watch the TV?  I have an aunt that lives in New York, and I’m worried,” a child pleads.  

“TV?  When do we ever watch TV in class?” I respond with a smile.   ‘Let’s get started – it’s grammar day everyone’s favorite!”  

Moments later, an announcement is delivered by a TA telling us the grim news.  Not one plane crash, now it’s two.  What???  The Pentagon?  Three planes?  Buildings collapsed?  People dying?  But it’s just an ordinary day!  

Why don’t I have my cell phone?  This ancient classroom has no Internet; the only technology is the old TV mounted in the corner of the classroom. 

Where are my babies? Did Lily make it to kindergarten?  What the hell is going on? I want to go home…  

Thoughts flash through my head as I try to process what to do.  Thirty sets of eyes stare at me, searching for comfort.  I’m the teacher.  I’m in charge.  I know what to do? 

Frantic thoughts of my own children race through my mind.  Are they OK?  What will happen to us?  Are the terrorists on their way?  

Then I realize-someone is taking care of my children, just as I’m taking care of someone else’s.  I know what to do.  They need me to make sense of it.  That’s what I would want my child’s teacher to do. 

Reluctantly, yet desperately, I turn on the TV.  I have to know. I can’t wait all day.  

After two hours, no word from my family, I switch it off.  Business as usual – that’s what educators do.  Keep them calm, keep them busy.  I know it’s only going to get worse, and it’s only 10 a.m.   Two more hours and I’m done. 

As I jump in my little gold Escort wagon, I’ve never been so relieved to only work part-time; 11 miles fly by-not enough time to decide how to explain the unexplainable to my 5-year-old.  The radio news drones on and on.  Thousands dead.  The children.  The mommies and daddies who will never commute home again.  The parents who will never see their babies again.  The young people who will never have the joy of holding their child in their arms. 

It’s more than I can bear.  The tears stream down my face as I safely reach home.  It’s clearly not just an ordinary day.  

‘Mommy, why are you sad?  What happened at school today?” Lily whispers, her big blue eyes boring into mine.  How do I answer?  She’s only four.  Far too young to have to learn about such horrors. 

I tell her a story about a plane crashing and good guys trying to stop the bad guys. “Did the bad guy go to jail?” she questions.  

“No, he died,” I reply, choking back tears at her innocence.

“I’m sorry he died, Mommy.  But I’m glad that we weren’t on that plane.”  

“Me too, baby.  Me, too.” 

I realize it may never be an ordinary day again.

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Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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