I was walking to my social studies class on the second floor of Salem High School (one of only two high school buildings on campus at that time, the third building of P-CEP was in the process of being built) in ninth grade. I heard a boy in the first floor hallway telling his friend that a train had hit a building; I wondered how that could have happened. Going up the stairs I remember seeing a girl crying in the bell tower stairway on the main floor, shaking and talking to someone on her cell phone. Other people in the crowd around me clarified that I’d heard wrong the first time; it wasn’t a train; it was a plane.
I walked into class where my teacher and a few other students were watching the television screen showing a building in New York that had been hit by a plane. There was smoke billowing out, and I could see the orange flames licking the broken windows of the side of the building. The room was silent aside from the CNN newscaster’s voice describing what they thought had happened, some kind of horrific accident. The rest of the class filed in, and we all sat watching the television silently, some of us wondering what was going on. When was she going to turn off the TV? Yes, this was tragic, but why did it feel like it was something bigger than we could understand?
Then, we watched as the second plane hit the building, and we realized that this could not be another accident. The teacher cried silently; others raced panicked into the hallway to make frantic phone calls. I still didn’t know what was going on. We saw what looked like pieces of paper falling from the broken windows of the building; then, we realized they were people. A man and a woman looked at each other, held hands, and jumped. Click.
The television buzzed silently blank at the front of the room as the teacher pulled herself together enough to address the class. “Those of you who need to call someone and haven’t done so already, please feel free to do so. Does anyone have any questions?” I didn’t know what the Twin Towers were. I didn’t know where they were, or why they were such a big deal, or how many people worked there, or how common it was for people in my class to know someone who worked there or lived around there. I remember several kids going home early. My best friend, Emily, and I sought reassurance from my mother (a teacher at my school) before lunch about whether or not we were going home too. Emily’s mother had called mine to make sure that we were safe and that my mother would look after her. I didn’t understand why they were so panicked. I don’t think most kids understood the depth of the tragedy; we were excited at the prospect of getting out of school.
Teachers were emailed and told not to turn on the televisions in their classrooms for the remainder of the day. Many teachers, especially those who had junior and senior students, “did not get” that email because they felt their students were mature enough to handle the truth. A truth that has since been seared into my memory with no chance of fading.
The first week of class, our social studies teacher had asked us to go home and ask an adult what piece of history they lived through and to tell us their memory of living through that history. She told us that once we lived through something that makes history, we would never forget that moment-where we were, what we did, what we heard, and how it affected us. I had discovered that my mother most clearly remembered hearing about the death of Elvis. She was working at Hardee’s when a customer came in and said that “the king is dead!” A week after we received that assignment, 9-11 happened. I still remember the look on my teacher’s face after she turned off the television and faced us. I can’t imagine being in her shoes: an educator expected to explain the unexplainable to a classroom of 14 and 15 year old kids, and I hope I never have to play that role.