9/11 is not my first "Do you remember where you were when?" event of my life. (that was when the Challenger exploded during lift-off) But 9/11 was my first event where I was placed in the role of helping others understand something, that even to this day, is incomprehensible to me.
I was still living on the west coast, I was getting ready for work. I walked into my room, turned on the news and froze. Everything stopped as I watched the news broadcasters stutter and stumble as the second plane hit the tower. My step-dad was down the hall, he and I stepped out of our rooms speechless. He a LA policeman, originally from NY, and I a middle school teacher we just looked at each other no words to express our thoughts our emotions. I finished getting ready, got in my car and turned on the radio for the half hour drive to work.
While driving the first tower fell. I arrived at work scared, nervous and concerned. I was beginning my second year of teaching and I was not sure how to talk to my students about this. I am science teacher, but I knew my kids would want to talk. I stopped by my friends' classroom, he hugged me and we watched tv, arms linked no words spoken. He is a history teacher, had more teaching experience than me, I asked him what to do, he said to me just be you, let them talk and if they don't want to talk, then teach.
By 10 that morning we were ordered to have TV's off and discussions were to stopped. The district wanted us to let the parents talk to the students, it wasn't our place, it wasn't our job they said. Just teach I was told. So I tried to do just that, I went back to my 3rd period class ready to "just teach". And after saying some calming words, attempting to reassure my students we were safe I did just that I taught. Some how I made it through that day at school. I left school, I cried and prepared for the next day.
And while 9/11 will always be remembered, it was Sept 12th that taught me my greatest lessons. Lessons that were so drastically different from each other and yet so valuable.
Sept. 12th saw our nation begin to come together in ways I had never seen. The outpouring of love and support, the lines at the blood banks, the news flashes of ribbons and messages on streets and trees around the world. The strangers holding each other up, the number of people who showed up to help. A lesson in acceptance, in shared grief bringing people together. I was proud.
And then I reached my classroom that morning. A line of my students waiting for me to get there. Wanting to come in, to talk, to cry to search for answers. See, I taught ESL science at the time. My classes were comprised of students from all over the world, with a variety of religions, ethnicities, cultural beliefs and language ability. My classroom was the first place I saw the fear in my students eyes, not because of the attacks on 9/11, but because they were Muslim.
And here came the second most important lesson, my sweet students, my young ladies who wore head dressings for religious reasons, who fasted for Ramadan, were being threatened, were being accused. Here I learned the power of fear and the unknown, the power of hate. I could not make it better that day anymore than I could make it better the day before. I could not undo the tragedy and I could not protect them from ignorance. All I could do was educate and so my classroom became a safe place. Not to hide, but to talk, to learn. I asked my Muslim students to share and I expected my other students to learn, tolerance a lesson we need to teach and learn repeatedly.
For the next few weeks I attempted to create a place of discussion about race, religion, stereotypes and acceptance. I attempted to teach 12 years old that people make decisions not an entire race, country, ethnicity or religious group. That people made the choice to attack us, not a race or religion. I attempted to teach tolerance to my students during a 25 minute lunch break each day.
Now today, 10 years later, I sit and realize that tolerance is still the most important lesson I can teach. But now a little older I realize it is not just tolerance but acceptance that needs to be taught. I think I taught that inadvertently in my classroom 10 years ago with my students as I watched them stand beside the muslim girl when she walked down the hall. But today with no tragedy bringing us together how do I teach it?
Today I pray that we have learned as a people, as a nation, as individuals. But I fear we have forgotten the lessons 9/11 taught us. I fear we have forgotten how we all grieved together over the losses, how we came together to help. I pray that this anniversary, the opening of the memorial will remind us how much further we got when we all worked together. Today I remember the people who lost their lives and the families that miss them everyday.