Gail Stevens

On September 11, 2001 I was teaching 6th grade language arts at a middle school in Raleigh, North Carolina. I remember being in the hallway with my teammates chatting as the students were arriving for 3rd period and the science teacher on our team, Catherine, said that her husband had left her a voicemail saying that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. She said this seconds before the bell rang for class to begin so there was no time for questions, so we shrugged our shoulders and went our separate ways to our classrooms. I was curious about what had happened but I remember thinking that it must have been an accident and how weird it was that someone could hit the World Trade Center.
We were in the middle of a vocabulary lesson when we were interrupted by an announcement by the principal of our school, Dr. Munn. Dr. Munn was a career educator who was what we would call “old school” in her approach to teaching. As the students would say she “didn’t play” and most students and teachers were in awe of her. Dr. Munn said, “Teachers, excuse this interruption. Please turn on your TVs. There is an historic event occurring in our country and it is important that we be aware of what’s happening.”
I remember thinking how odd that she would ask us to turn on our TVs…what in the world could be so important about a plane hitting a building that we would interrupt our lessons? This was definitely NOT something Dr. Munn would have done. I remember the students immediately began to chatter about this very unusual request and at first there was an air of excitement and curiosity in the room.
I obediently turned on the television that hung in the corner of my room near the windows. We watched in fascination at first of the images that appeared of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, the explosions, the flames, the smoke, and the people running for their lives. I remember it took several minutes for me to process what was happening. It honestly seemed like we were watching a movie, that this could not possibly be real. As I slowly began to absorb the reality of what I was seeing I began to think of my family up north. I am from New Jersey and have family and friends who lived very close to New York City. My niece, Lori, worked one block from the World Trade Center at the time and I immediately panicked at the thought that she might have been there when this happened. While my mind began to reel with the implications of what I was seeing the students were reacting to the images being thrust at them from the television screen. I remember many of the boys were laughing and joking about how cool the explosions were as if they were watching a movie on the screen. Some of my girls were crying and gathering in small groups to pray. I remember feeling so helpless to explain what was happening (they were asking a million questions by this point) and trying to remain calm myself so as not to make things worse for my students, but honestly I just wanted to call my family and find out if my niece was okay.
Shortly after we began watching the unfolding scene on the television, the first tower collapsed. Together we watched the building crumble to the ground in a matter of seconds. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and I instantly began to think about the sheer number of people who might have been in that building when it went down. My mind was desperately trying to process what was happening.
Most of what I remember of that day is the image of that building collapsing and the realization that we were under attack from some unknown enemy. I was deeply terrified but I had to remain calm for my students and try to assuage their fears. Like most teachers that day, I was able to remain calm (outwardly) even though every fiber of my being was equally terrified and horrified by what I was witnessing.
Shortly after the first building collapsed, Dr. Munn came back on the announcements and told us to turn off our televisions and “resume normal activities.” I can still to this day remember thinking what?!?!? Nothing will ever be normal again! Teaching during that time period was so incredibly difficult in the weeks and months ahead as we were perpetually distracted by this horrific event and all the scary (remember Anthrax?) events that passed that year.
Somehow we muddled through the rest of the day until we could go home to our own families and hug them close. I was able to find out that my niece was okay. She was running late that day and had been on the train platform in New Jersey and actually saw the planes hit the towers from the train platform. To this day she cannot talk about it.
I ended up teaching at that middle school for 15 years, so very often I would have students who I had taught come back to see me. About five years ago, one of my students, Ryan, stopped by to say hello. I was sitting at my desk after school and he popped in. After some catching up he grew quiet and then he said, “You know, I will never forget being in this classroom on 9/11. I can still remember it as clear as day. I will never forget it.”
Me too, Ryan.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing these memories. Your experience makes it really clear why we *don’t* want to have a whole school of unprepared teachers and students watching a disaster as it unfolds.

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