When 9/11 happened, I was administering a beginning-of-the-year standardized test to my 6th grade homeroom when the aide who was handing out the bubble sheets to all the classrooms told me someone had crashed a plane into the World Trade Center, and that there were reports of a second plane as well. The kids overheard the aide’s words.
“Who crashed a plane, Mister?”
“Let’s have a moment of silence,” I said, pretty sure that was what I was supposed to do in these situations.
There were some uncomfortable giggles and a few restless seconds of silence, and then I kept handing out the bubble sheets.
I gave the test to the kids and waited while they filled it out. The next period was my “prep” (free period), and I went over to find Mr. F, one of my students’ English teachers: a fat, funny, foul-mouthed former salesman and the teacher’s union rep.
“Who did it?” I asked him. “Bin Laden?” (The USS Cole had been bombed just the year before.)
“Who the fuck knows?” Mr. F said. “Bin Laden says he wasn’t involved. And there was another plane that just crashed into the Pentagon.”
I went to go teach my next class.
Parents had begun arriving around 10AM to pick up their kids. By 11:15, the end of the next period, a long line of anxious parents snaked down the second-floor hallway, from the main office all the way to my classroom, waiting to be told where their child was.The main office called out name after name over the PA system, and the hallway became total confusion, as kids would wander out to go find their parents in the line, and other kids came from the first or third or fourth floors or the “movable classroom” trailers outside to find their parents. The school had a lot of trouble keeping kids in the right place under the best of circumstances.
Arthur and Jose, who were no longer in my homeroom but I still had in my 8th grade science class, raised their hands.
“They called my name.”
Joeni, who was, to her great disgust, stuck in class with these two bozos for yet another year of middle school, shook her head.
“Mister, they didn’t call their names.”
Ooooh. Different kids called out. Lyin to a teacher. Tryin to get out of class. Suspended the first week of school. We’re very disappointed in you, young men.
Now that it was a joke, about half the kids started raising their hands to say that their names had been called.
Finally, the PA stopped its endless list of students’ names. Another approach was being tried. Teachers were told one by one to bring their classes down to the auditorium, where they marched past parents standing along the walls, who were supposed to point out their children like suspects in a lineup. Some more jokes– Shanequa said she saw her grandmother over on the other side of the auditorium, can she go, it’s hard for her grandmother to see that far, and so on. With a sigh, Shanequa and a few other kids– all veterans of my goofball homeroom the year before– all tromped back up the stairs to my classroom. Their parents were probably still stuck at work, or trying to make their way home. Someone said they thought the trains were shut down.
Gloria raised her hand. How close to the Twin Towers was 14th street? That’s where her mom worked.
I told her it was pretty far, over a mile away at least.
She looked at her hands.
The PA came on- keep whoever you have in your class, the bell schedule is suspended for the rest of the day.
We sat around for the last hour and a half, not doing any real schoolwork. Gloria and Sharron and Shanequa read their books and drew pictures on lined notepaper I handed out; Arthur and Jose sat in the back of the room, talking and occasionally suggested I should turn on Hot 97 or some other music to make the time go faster.
3:20 PM finally came, and everyone rushed out. It was still sunny outside, you could see the kids bouncing their handballs and basketballs and buying their daily coco gelado from the guy with the handtruck outside, like any other day, just fewer than usual since most of them had been picked up early.
I made my way home, walking from the Bronx to my apartment in Washington Heights. The subways and buses weren’t running, and the streets gradually filled with pedestrians walking in the middle of the road. As we crossed the bridge over the Harlem River into Manhattan, several people pointed at the sky, to smoke rising in the distance of Downtown.