I woke up early that morning because I wanted to hand papers back that day. The papers were fresh, having been handed in the day before. I’d graded the first half the prior night, and needed to grade the second half over breakfast.
I was teaching at a high school that year, an all-girls school where I only taught for a year. The school was not ultimately a good fit for me, and I was not a good fit for that particular school. It was a school where the kids not only wore uniforms, but where uniformity trumped individuality.
There I was, grading essays and drinking tea, when a neighbor knocked on the hull of my boat. I poked my head out the hatch, and he asked whether I had the news on. When I told him that I was grading papers, he replied, “Turn on the news. America is under attack.” Then he walked off.
Following instinct, I shoved the stack of papers into my briefcase, grabbed my car keys, grabbed my revolver, and then headed out for the car. I listened to NPR on the way into school, and decided to leave the revolver in my car in the parking lot. Under the seat. Loaded. It’s the only time in 20 years of teaching I’ve ever had a firearm on campus.
There was a classroom across from my office, and it had a TV. Four teachers were gathered there, and I joined them a couple minutes before the second jet slammed into the second tower. We groaned collectively. It didn’t seem real.
When the first tower collapsed. We could no longer groan. It was hard enough to breathe.
When the intercom finally came on, it summoned all teachers to an emergency faculty meeting that would be held in half an hour.
Before we could attend the meeting, the second tower came down. One of the teachers asked what had just happened. When I responded that the second tower had just collapsed, she responded angrily that I had to be wrong.
We attended the emergency faculty meeting. All we knew at that point was that multiple jets had been hijacked. We had no idea whether any jets would be slamming into Bay Area buildings or bridges. Our principal had tried to connect public safety officials, but the lines were all busy. We knew we couldn’t hold class; we assumed that half of our students wouldn’t come to school that day, and we assumed that the other half would show up for class without knowing that anything had happened.
The local police department finally contacted us, and suggested that we “shelter in place.” Students who made it to school should stay in school until we knew whether there would be attacks on the west coast. It would be safer to stay at school than to return home. They would send an officer as soon as they could.
Then the question came up whether we should keep the televisions on in our homerooms.
The principal said, “You decide.”
It was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever faced as a teacher.
Journal of Natural Hist. Ed.
Natural History Institute
Center for Humans & Nature