I Couldn’t Do It

Fourteen years ago today, I was teaching subjects and predicates to my 5th graders.  I was wearing navy capris and a peach colored short sleeve shirt. I don’t know why I remember that, but I remember certain things every single year on this date and that is one of them.

I was teaching in a trailer and shared it with another teacher named Adrienne. I remember walking around the room, looking over my students’ shoulders when Adrienne came into the trailer and called me over. “A plane hit one of the twin towers.”

I was shocked. “How?”

“They’re not sure. They think it was an accident. I’m going back into the teacher’s room to watch the news.”

I turned back to my class and remembered my father’s words from years ago saying that it was a miracle that no tall buildings in New York were ever hit being so close to Kennedy and LaGuardia airports.  Wow. I hope everyone is okay, I thought, mainly thinking of the people on the plane, not in the building.  Then I realized it was close to 9:00. People were in the buildings.  Questions started flooding my mind. Did the plane tip the building? Did it totally crash into  the building? What could have happened?  My logical mind was playing different scenarios in my head when suddenly, my colleague burst back into the room, her face white with terror.

“Another plane hit the other tower. It’s a terrorist attack.”

My stomach lurched. A feeling of panic engrossed my body. My mind raced. I gasped and again, turned back and looked at my 5th graders, their little heads down, pencils moving as they worked on the practice packet I had given them. I knew most of these kids would go home to an empty house.  What would they think? I assumed they would be very scared and not having an adult at home to comfort or explain things to them could be terrifying to a 10 year-old.  I slowly walked to the front of the room.

“Boys and girls. Put your pencils down.”

My new class looked at me and suddenly, I felt a rush of love for them and a need to protect them – these children I had known less  than two weeks were the future of America. What do I say to them? I did not know many details of what happened, but knew I had to address it.  I looked at their helpless faces, big eyes and told them that something bad had happened and that we were going to put the TV on and watch the news.

I turned on the TV and tried to quickly grasp what had happened.  Both towers had been hit at that point.  The news stations were not yet showing the second plane hitting, an image most of us now have burned in our minds. We saw the towers burning and black smoke coming out of the enormous buildings that were a fixture in New York City.  My students and I watched in silence until one of my boys asked, “What would someone do that?”

Just then, a news camera panned to people on the street who were covered in dust, some bloody, some crying and some with blank stares on their faces.  I thought that might be a little too tramatic for my students to see so I turned it off and attempted to answer the boy’s question.  I told the kids that some people hate Americans.  They hate our freedoms and our way of life. The kids could not understand why anyone would hate us.  We were Americans. We help everyone. Everyone wants to come to our country to live. I also told them about the terrorists’ attempts to knock down the towers. I drew a picture of the towers on the green chalkboard and we talked about how the terrorists were obviously trying to knock the buildings down. We talked about the word “terrorist” and one of the kids asked how many people died.  I honestly told them that I was not sure, but the number would be high. Then one of my girls asked, “Will they try and come to Philipsburg?” Other students seemed to have been wondering the same thing as they looked at me for my response. “No, they will not come here.  The town is way too small and the goal of a terrorist is to inflict fear in as many people as possible.  We are too small for that.” The kids and I seemed to breathe a little easier as that reality set in -we were safe in the school and in the town, but so many in New York and Washington D.C. were not.

The music teacher arrived pushing her cart into the trailer with a worried look on her face and as I gathered my things to go into the school, I told the students I would see them after their class. I remember almost running through the front door and going into the faculty room.  I had to see what was going on.  One of my colleagues looked up at me grimly. “They hit the Pentagon.”

That is when I felt a terror like nothing I have ever felt before or since. I did not know what to do. I ran into the ladies room  and burst into tears, sobbing.  I did not know anyone who worked at the WTC, but as an American, I felt for my people. For people in general. And for my country.  And damn it, I felt terror, exactly what those evil monsters wanted me to feel. I shook off that feeling, angry with myself, not wanting to let them win.

I quickly composed myself and went to the library.  Every teacher I passed knew. I could tell. No one was smiling. Everyone had a solemn look on his/her face. I called my parents who were on vacation in Maryland and also called my brother, who lived one town over from the school.  I had to hear their voices.  I knew they were safe. I knew they were not one of the persons trapped in the buildings or running for their lives, but I had to know they were okay. I teared up thinking many people would never hear the voices of their loved ones again after today. I thought of my three year old nephew and my three month old niece. What kind of world would they grow up in? I remember my father saying that the death toll would be in the thousands. He was right. I then went into the teacher’s room, eager to find out what was happening. I walked into a room full of teachers in dead silence and as I looked up, the first tower fell. We all shrieked and gasped. Some of us had tears in our eyes.  Some sat in silence. I, again, felt fear and then rage.  Pure rage. I watched the coverage until the bell rang and returned to my classroom. I remember  thinking, “What am I going to tell my students? How can I explain this? What the hell is happening?  Are they doing to hit Chicago? LA? Who is doing this? HOW could this have happened?”

I returned to the classroom the music teacher looked at me with sadness in her eyes. She asked me what was going on. I filled her in on what I knew – the Pentagon was hit and one of the towers had fallen. She looked at me as if I was lying.  She could not believe it. Connie slowly shook her head.  “God help us.”

I remember driving home in almost total silence that day.  The only sound was my own sobs and wails of sorrow. My heart hurt. My head hurt. I just wanted to get home.  But I was dog sitting at my parents’ house, so I made the 45 minute drive to Pennsylvania in silence. I could not listen to the radio. I looked up into the picturesque blue sky and could not imagine what the people on the planes went through. Or the people trapped in the towers. Or the people running for their lives.  Or the people jumping out the windows.

I could not listen to the radio for a week, even when the stations started playing music again. I remember all sporting events canceled.  I could not laugh. I could not smile. I could not imagine what the families were going through and felt I needed to do something to help. I had already donated water and food at my local grocery store, which was collecting donations and shipping them to Ground Zero for the workers trying to search for survivors and clean up the rubble left behind.

I felt the need to go to a Navy recruiting station. My father joined the Navy during Vietnam. I wanted to join during this war on terror. I went to the station and was signed up and had a physical scheduled. I then asked the recruiter (who ironically graduated high school with my brother) where she thought I would be placed. She told me that since I had a college degree, they would likely put me in intelligence to learn Arabic and possibly go to Afghanistan and immerse with the people. I couldn’t do it.  I wanted to get revenge for America. I wanted to kill those who wanted to kill Americans. But I wanted to do it from afar.  The thought of walking around in a middle eastern country with possible terrorists scared me.  I chickened out. I couldn’t do it.  I decided that the best thing for me to do was to educate my students, promote a sense of patriotism in my classroom and continue to do patriotic pride events in my school, which I had always done.

I regret my decision every day.  I wish I had the courage to fight for my country. But I didn’t. That is why I am in such awe of veterans and have the utmost respect for all of those who have fought and are still fighting for our great country. Our men and women are still fighting. We cannot and should not forget them while they are overseas or when they come home.  It takes a special person to risk his/her life so that each of us can live the way we do.

Now, 14 years later, my husband and I do what we can to support the military, police, firemen and first responders. But we can never do enough.  Never forget 9/11.  And don’t forget all of those who protect us each and every day. May God bless them all and may God bless America.