They are high school seniors now, those kids who were in my 4th grade class that day — our very first together. I’d put good-luck chocolate ladybugs on each of their desks. As I was touring them around the building an administrator muttered that she had to tell me something. Not now, I thought, I’ve got to focus on these new children. A bit later I was told and the rest of the day was like no other. The rest of the week, month, and year were like no other. It was a long time before we had an uneventful week (there were bomb threats, anthrax scares, and more all the time) and when we did I gave each of them another chocolate ladybug. Many of the kids saved theirs; I wouldn’t be surprised if they still had them. It was a tough year.
I wrote about our experiences a lot. “Normal service will be resumed” for the Times Educational Supplement and many posts at the child_lit list serve, an important community for me that gave me a lot of comfort at the time. Here are some excerpts from those:
It was the first day of school for Dalton fourth graders yesterday. All 96
of them successfully made their way up to their 9th floor classrooms and
their day started with the usual optimism of such a first day. After days of
getting ready, we teachers were so glad to see them, our reason for being.
By 9:20 AM I’d led a discussion of rules, managed to help my new charges stow
away school supplies, toured them around to see where the all-important
bathrooms and water fountains were, and done my first read aloud. It was as
they were doing some writing that I heard.
We are a very overcrowded school and used to things going wrong because of
this. But not yesterday. Yesterday Dalton worked like a well -oiled machine.
Children were informed appropriately and calmly. As parents arrived, staff
came upstairs to collect their children and bring them outside. (No one was
allowed into the building). All adults worked with eerie quiet, not knowing
what to expect. The children were quiet too. By 12:30 I realized we couldn’t
possible continue any sort of normal class schedule and put all the remaining
4th graders into one room to watch Babe: Pig in the City. I was able to hug
those who needed a hug even though I had barely attached names and faces.
But most were pretty cheerful and I’m glad for that. One young teacher
commented that it must be like when JFK was shot. No, I said, it was not
like that. And, no , I said to someone else, not like the Challenger either.
It wasn’t like anything else I’ve ever experienced.
I realized at 2 PM how on edge I was when I burst into tears upon hearing
that one colleague’s brother, who worked in the World Trade Center, had
gotten out alive. I had been certain that there was no way he had survived
and, from her red-rimmed eyes, I know she had thought that too. Both of us
just needed to hold on to each other for a while in relief. My dear friend
and colleague Roxanne Feldman (fairrosa) who lives across the street from the
World Trade Center was reunited last night in New Jersey with her husband and
child who were evacuated by boat. I just talked to her for the first time
since early yesterday afternoon when she headed out to find them.
I had planned to stay after school a bit, but others convinced me to walk
with them across Central Park (as there was no transportation). I’m glad they
did as the quiet and numbers of numbed people was unnerving. We heard jets
fly overhead (at school we thought they were more bombs) and the sounds of
emergency vehicles. As we walked we saw ambulances and state troopers moving
down Fifth Avenue and a boarded-up Guggenheim Museum.
All yesterday while at school I was steeling myself for much worst. For hurt
and dying children. I kept thinking about the many news articles I’d read
about others dealing with this and how in awe I was with the adults in such
circumstances; how would I possibly manage if children were hurt. I thought
about our arrogance as a nation; that we thought that this sort of thing
would never happen to us. It happened elsewhere. In Ireland. In Bosnia. In
Sierra Leone. In Israel. But this time it did happen here.
Friday, September 14, 2001
I can’t tell you how comforting email and the internet has been for me over
the last few days. We had no school Wednesday and tried to yesterday. Just
as we were beginning to feel that we were getting into a routine, there was a
bomb scare (one of 90 in Manhattan yesterday) and we spent the next two hours
(until dismissal) on the street. When the police said we could “enter at our
own risk” I raced in to get my bag and went home on a bus through Central
Park (I try not to think about how well known Central Park is although I have
not been able to run in it since Monday) and chatted with someone who had
overheard my colleague and me and who has been volunteering in the crash
site. I got home and immediately went online. Everyone I know has different
comforting strategies. I can’t eat at all, but a skinny colleague is eating
comfort food voraciously (“even chocolate!” she says). Roxanne, I know is
helped like me by the Internet, and being with her family, especially the
effervescent Lily (a most amazingly wonderful two year old!) and her husband
David who was at the World Trade Center with Lily (as I alread wrote) at the
time of the events.
Anyway, thank you Michael Joseph (who is also a New Yorker and whom I
relieved to know is still here too) for allowing us to be the best sort of
online community right now. And thanks to those who have emailed me
privately, some of whom I know and some of whom I don’t, from all over the
world. I can’t stop talking about you to everyone I know.
And a note about books for children. My experience yesterday (and Kathy
Isaac’s too, although I leave it to her to write about it) is that children
want normalcy. They don’t want books and experiences that remind them of the
event. They want their minds otherwise occupied. My inclination was to do
this, but after several hours of advice from pysychologists yesterday morning
I proceeded gingerly with my students (some of whom I still can’t connect
names and faces; remember, our first school day was Tuesday). They were very
emphatic about wanting, as I wrote Kathy, “plain old school.” I think we
teachers wanted that too. Too bad that just as we had begun to relax we had
the bomb scare and that was the end of any sort of relaxation. Going back
into the building to get my bag I jumped a mile when a light flickered.
NYC Week Two
Yesterday we finished our second week of school. A week with no disasters, no
bomb threats, no evacuations, no special assemblies, no school cancellation.
Just plain old school.
I continued to read aloud The Best (Worst) School Year Ever (and checked my
students’ faces with every casual reference to blowing up and explosions—
amazing how we use that language so casually in our books and culture). We
began a writing project, spelling books were distributed, math started at
last, there was homework, and the kids wrote letters to me in their journals
(in which my invitation to write about how things were “outside of school”
resulted in descriptions of pets, that this was the “best year ever”, that
“life was good.” Only one wrote about the WTC). I scolded and then sidelined
some kids for playing too roughly during recess. A couple of girls started a
petition because they didn’t like my desk arrangement. Plain old school.
Every day in the New York Times are sympathy ads from businesses, from
governments, and from organizations. There are informational ads too, from
insurance and aid agencies. The few regular ads look jarring next to them.
In addition to news articles featuring the victims (short stories about them
clearly from those who knew and loved them) there are, every day, more and
more paid obituary announcements, pages of them. Then there are the stories
of the other kinds of deaths: NY tourism, Broadway shows, small businesses
in and around the WTC, displaced schools. People who worked there and are
alive, but are now without jobs, savings, insurance, or any sort of finacial
fallback. The impact of those planes into the WTC are like rocks into a body
of water, the ripples keep coming.
When my students came into the classroom last Tuesday, tbey found chocolate
ladybugs on their desks. I’d picked them up in Switzerland: gluck kafer,
lucky bugs. I gave them each another one yesterday. And those left over to
the rest to the adults around. We’ll take any sort of luck we can get.
The Power of Books
I wrote, last week, to another list, that books are not always the answer and
can even make things worse. I do understand that we are all on this list
because we do love books, especially children’s books. However, they just
don’t do it all the time. As people post suggestions for books to use with
children in the wake of Tuesday’s events, I really, really, REALLY urge those
planning to use them with groups of children to be very, very, VERY cautious.
It is one thing to give or read a book to one child you know well (say your
own) and another to give or read it to a class or group of children. Books
can be helpful or painful. We can’t necessarily know. I beg you not to so
quickly create those disaster units (I have to say, I was very uncomfortable
with that idea) in your wish to do something, to read aloud Smoky Night (I’m
sorry, but having seen and smelled the smoke for days I can’t imagine reading
that one here), or otherwise use these books in groups and classrooms without
great, great care. Those of you recommending that others use them with
children, please provide some variation of this caveate with your book
One thing I’m learning from my students is that it is very hard to intuit
their states of mind right now. I am not going to presume anything. I don’t
know them well. I tell them over and over that I’m here, to tell their
parents to contact me if they are upset worried about anything (say, getting
lost in their new building which, I bet, would be much scarier after last
Tuesday). After science yesterday, Katie complained of a stomach ache and
went to the bathroom. Next thing I knew some other girls dashed in to tell me
she was crying hysterically. I retrieved her, hugged her a lot, and sent her
to the nurse who sent her home. Later I talked with her dad who said she is
still terribly scared. And we adults still are too. As well as sad,
terribly, terribly sad. John, who helped move a file cabinet yesterday
morning, told me about his brother-in-law, one of those heroic fireman.
Mercedes who served us lunch talked to me red-eyed of missing neighbors.
Another good friend, an only child, is coping with the death of her father
this weekend along with her mother’s increasing dementia….and her 6th grade
students and their grief and fear. These are just a few of the people in my
school community. We are all affected directly somehow; I have yet to meet
or talk to someone who wasn’t.
And our students did not watch Tuesday’s events firsthand as did all too many
children at schools further downtown, in Brooklyn, and in New Jersey too.
Those buildings were so tall they were seen far and wide. A little boy
standing with his dad in front of me on the bus yesterday suddenly called out
“airplane” and crouched down. And stayed there clinging to his dad’s leg for
a while on that crowded bus (crowded, I suspect, because many can’t bear to
go underground on the subway just yet; I sure couldn’t.)
Yesterday, our first full day in the fourth grade, I wondered all day about
my end of day read aloud. The children were thrilled to see it on the
schedule, but I worried about what I should read. Finally, after looking over
my sure-fire read alouds I stuck with my pre-Tuesday book selection, The
Best (Worst) School Year Ever. It is a school story, it is completely off
the wall funny, and it has a theme of tolerance and understanding (yes, it
does, really!) I started reading and immediately worried as the narrator
wrote of the Herdmans being like outlaws, that if they had lived in the Wild
West they would have “blown” it up. I wondered, would those words scare? I
discretely looked at the faces around me, (one of my most important teacher
skills is this ability, long honed) but they just looked intrigued. I read
further to the description of Imogene’s science project (something unknown
scratching in an oatmeal box) and they giggled. By the time I stopped, half
way through the first chapter one, I relaxed; it seemed be a good choice.
(But I’m sure going to keep on watching. The smoke may go away, but not the
I particularly urge those who use books for their own healing and learning
realize that they may not work that way for every child. Someone emailed me
privately about how strongly she felt that books could transcend. I wrote her
back to about how I couldn’t concentrate enough to read a book. I have The
Land (new Mildred Taylor) partially finished, but I can’t touch it right now.
Not even fantasy, my favorite genre. Not now. Romance, perhaps. Meg Cabot’s
second Princess Diaries book? Jane Austen? A Harlequin?
Much as I dearly love books, I just can’t agree that they are our magic
bullets. They are just bits of paper, cloth, and cardboard. Without the
sensitive, careful, respectful, cautious, and intelligent presentation of a
teacher, they will not do what many who create them intend.
So, in this sad and scary time, please watch the children very carefully as
you consider using books with them.