About one million children were in their classrooms across New York City on the morning of September 11, 2001. The memories of that day remain vivid for them, and for their teachers. In observance of the 5th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, a group of New York City teachers is sharing their stories of that day, and how they helped their young students understand and cope with what happened.
"It was the beautiful, sunny clear day. I remember looking over and just admiring how beautiful and clear the sky was," recalls fifth grade teacher Debbie Almontaser. September 11th, 2001, started like any other school day. She got her students into the classroom and had them start doing their regular activities.
"About a half hour later, I was visited by a parent who came to the door. She gave me the news that one of the Twin Towers had been hit by a plane," Almontaser says, adding the parent wanted to be sure the teachers kept their students in class until there was more information. "About 20 minutes later, the same person comes back and tells me about the second tower. At that point, I realized this is no accident. This is an attack."
Debbie Almontaser is one of 18 teachers who recount their memories in a book titled, Forever After: New York City Teachers on 9/11.
"Almost all of the stories, focus initially on the immediacy of the experience. What was it like on September 11? How they responded, depending on their circumstances and situation, to the attack on the World Trade Center," says educator Maureen Grolnick, who served as the book's editor.
She notes that seven of the contributors were within less than half a kilometer of the World Trade Center at the time of the attack. "Within an hour, they were being told to evacuate. Altogether there were 9,000 children in that quarter mile [half kilometer] around the World Trade Center. So those teachers tell the story of getting the children out and working in ways that were based on very individual decisions."
In the days, weeks and months following the attack, Grolnick says, teachers were faced with new challenges, when the event jumped beyond the traditional curriculum. "It was so compellingly and overwhelmingly clear on September 11 that teachers really had to deal with what's happening now and questions that can't be answered," she says. "Children were saying, depending on their age, 'Why is this happening?' Teachers working after 9/11 had to answer these questions for the present, and the students didn't just skip to the next chapter, they would ask again and again."
Depending on their students' emotional needs and intellectual abilities, teachers had to invent their own curriculum. "For example, a teacher in Chinatown, who responded to the need of her youngsters who were sort of caught between literacy in Chinese and English, and needed desperately to know what was on the newspapers and what was happening in the world around them. So for her the newspapers became the text, Grolnick says.
Other teachers had their students write stories or invited guest speakers to their classrooms. Debbie Almontaser says teachers felt they needed to do something to respond to the children's questions.
"The Department of Education didn't want teachers to spend a great deal [of time] talking about what happened. I and many teachers across the city felt like you can't pretend that what happened didn't happen," Almontaser says. She says teachers engaged in a number of activities to help their students understand more about Arabs and Muslims. "[We did that] through videos, books, inviting guest speakers, doing fieldtrips to local places in the area like a mosque, or like the Atlantic Avenue, which is all Middle Eastern stores."
A few weeks later, Almontaser was assigned to travel to schools all around the city to do cross cultural presentations. In one of the schools, teachers came up with the idea of creating a mural.
"What we ended up doing was getting the kids to draw on a large piece of paper what they felt they represented," Almontaser ssay. "Then we took that illustration and [told] them, 'Okay, now that you've done it on paper, you're going to be doing it on the wall. This is going to be your living testimony to your existence in the school.' So, kids, teachers, parents, all came out everyday for 2 weeks to finish the mural."
Just like the mural, which captures one of the community's historical moments, Maureen Grolnick says other stories in Forever After reveal the most significant moments in peoples' life. She refers to one story written by third grade teacher, Patricia Lent, who asked her young students in the spring of 2002, "'what do you remember most about September 11?' And one of the little boys said, 'what I remember most is that you held my hand and never let go.'
Maureen Grolnick says that's what teachers do -- keep their students safe, answer their questions, help them understand. She hopes their stories of 9/11 will be a testament to what teachers can do to ease students from hopelessness to a sense of competence and control.