A ‘thank you’ to the teachers who guided us through 9/11

It seems everyone has a memory of how beautiful a morning it was on September 11, 2001. Walking into school that day as a 6th grader, the biggest worry on my mind was enduring the dreadful ISTEP test — the state of Indiana’s standardized tests for students.

A bunch of us packed into the cafeteria and settled in for a long day of testing and for our attention spans to be pushed to their absolute limit. We had no idea the horror that was unfolding thousands of miles away in downtown Manhattan, and later in Washington, D.C., and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Our principal, Ken Wempe, interrupted the testing to deliver the news over the school-wide intercom. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t fully grasp at the time what was happening. I didn’t even know where the World Trade Centers were located, and I was not all that familiar with what the Pentagon even was or what its significance was.

But still, it was clear — this was big, and our lives were about to be forever changed.

Everything about that day still feels so fresh. The testing was put on hold, as was any planned instruction that teachers had. We spent the entire class day, like every other American, glued to the television, watching in utter disbelief. 

As a teacher now, I’ve found myself reflecting on that day quite often, and the word that I keep coming back to is “grateful.”

The students in my school were ages 11-14. We were all just kids. I’m sure I was not the only one who felt rather lost at the time about what exactly was happening. I’ve often thought about how I would have handled that as a teacher, even with my high school students. 

It would have been an easy, defensible decision by the administrators and teachers at my school to shield a bunch of children from watching that horror unfold in real time. I think my default response might have been to do that so as not to be the one responsible for potentially scarring a student with these images.

But that’s not what my teachers did. They sat with us. Watched with us. Grieved with us. They recognized that this was an opportunity to truly be educators in every sense of the word. What an incredible burden educators bear each and every day. I can only imagine the weight they felt on September 11, 2001.

The fact is, we were going to see those images eventually. And there was no real learning that was going to take place that day. Even if you could shield students in a pre-cell phone era from the world outside of the school building, the adults in the building knew what was happening and would have certainly been distracted trying to teach.

I have never talked to Mr. Wempe about how he weighed the decision to handle that day the way he did, but I would love to know. I can only imagine the burden he must have felt having to tell us all over the intercom what happened and field questions from fearful teachers and students that day.

As a teacher you understand that there are some things you will teach people now that just won’t make sense until later. There are things you will do for them now that will not resonate with them until years down the road. It’s been 20 years, and there are things I’m still learning from that day.

But what I can see clearly now is that Mr. Wempe had an immense amount of trust in both his teachers and his students that day. He understood the significance of the event, the potential for horrific images to be imprinted on our minds, yet he trusted us anyway. I am so grateful for that.

When I think back to my middle school years, I remember there being a huge since of patriotism. Following our 8th grade graduation, several of us took a class trip to New York City and Washington, D.C. We visited the site of where the World Trade Centers had stood just three years prior. We drove past the Pentagon to see the facade forever changed. Many of us reflected on that day it all happened and were left speechless seeing the sites in real life.

There are some things that you just need to experience, and I was grateful to experience these sites for the first time with many of the same people I experienced September 11, 2001 with.

This is the defining historical event of my lifetime so far. So much of American policy, our political scene, and the course of history is a result of what happened that day. To every teacher, administrator, and adult that helped me and so many of us navigate that day, thank you.

Thank you for understanding what was happening, the importance of why we needed to witness it, and allowing us all to live through it together.

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Read more from Cole:

Navigating a COVID-19 world

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