Jennifer Hernandez

September 11, 2001

I was standing at my classroom door during passing time when I first heard the news. The middle school hallway hummed with the energy of a new school year. Ms. Freeman, whose office was next door to my classroom, strode over to me, leaned in close, and said in a low voice, “A plane just crashed into the Twin Towers in New York. Don’t say anything to the kids.”

My brain, busy with monitoring students and mentally reviewing the next hour’s lesson plan, did an internal headshake. Why is she telling me this? What does an accident like that have to do with us here? Can’t it wait?

I nodded, said okay, the bell rang, and I closed my door to teach English to my group of immigrant students. They were newcomers to the U.S. from Mexico, Vietnam, Ukraine, Liberia, Somalia.

Class ended, and I had a prep period. I had a niggling feeling about what Ms. Freeman had told me. There was something I was missing. The energy in the hallways felt different somehow. Anxious.

I walked down to the 6th grade wing and found Mr. Moe’s door open, a small group of teachers gathered around the wall-mounted TV. The Today Show was playing a repeating loop of planes crashing into the Towers. Yes, planes. A second plane had crashed. This wasn’t an accident. It finally hit me.

We were in Minnesota, the suburbs of Minneapolis. I felt no immediate danger. I knew no one in New York. But I felt a shifting. The country where we lived was not the same as it had been that morning when I woke up, dressed my two-year-old son and dropped him at daycare. The child I carried in my womb, only twelve weeks along, would be born into this new world, this world that suddenly felt uncertain.

I don’t remember when or how I learned the rest of the day’s details – the crash at the Pentagon, the heroics of Flight 93. I remember afterward, going home and turning on the TV news – not my regular habit – seeing the people jumping from the Towers, the firefighters going into the buildings, the lines of survivors with eyes like refugees trickling out into the street. The rubble. The smoke. The families desperately searching. The memorials.

I do remember talking to my students about what was happening. We told them that same afternoon. Just the basic facts, as we understood them at the time. I remember that my voice cracked, that I began to cry, tears streaming down my cheeks. Not all the students knew what to make of their teacher so emotional, so not-entirely-in-control. Mostly, I wanted them to feel that they were safe. Especially my students whose families had recently arrived from places that had not been safe. Liberia or Somalia, where civil war had been the backdrop of the students’ entire lives. I worried about my Somali students whose names and hijabs and language made them easy targets for misinformed anger and judgement.

School was a safe place, I assured them. They should come to school tomorrow. We lived thousands of miles away from where the attacks were happening. I showed them on a map. Hoped they would be able to reassure their families at home, parents with little or no English who knew too well the feeling of fear.

3 Comments

  1. Jennifer..I love love love that you shared your very unique story. That is exactly what I hoped for this blog..because there are so many different stories. And that day affected every single one of us, but differently. I have to let you know about Gae Polisner’s YA novel The Memory of Things which specially talks about this. She has a character from Uganda and she speaks the understanding that was only gained by U.S students after we experienced our own tragedy. Thank you so much for posting this. And today, 9/11 especially, my heart goes out to.

  2. Thank you, Nora, for flagging this story for me. Yes, these are the moments and fears we hope to capture, and better yet to share understanding that we are not alone in this world, and others’ suffering has been way, way greater than ours. May schools always be a safe place of building empathy, connection and understanding. <3

  3. Jennifer Hernandez |

    Nora and Gae, Thank you so much for your comments and for this opportunity to share our stories. I’m a huge advocate in the power of narrative to help heal and to bring out our shared humanity. I haven’t managed to read Nine, Ten or The Memory of Things yet, but they are both on my list. I will give a shout out here to Teachers Write for introducing me to Nora’s work and this blog. Thanks again, and I’m looking forward to reading more stories. As you said, we were all changed that day. We all have stories to tell.

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