On September 11, 2001, I was teaching my English class at Masterman High School in Center City Philadelphia. It was a gorgeous fall day. The sky was blue, the air crisp and clean and I remember thinking how especially beautiful the city skyline looked as I drove to school along the scenic West River Drive.
I taught my first period class as I would on any other September day. It was still the honeymoon time where students were still eager to be back to school and willing to give their new teachers a chance. When the class ended, I stepped out into the hallway and a colleague, Bill Synder, a popular history teacher, pulled me aside. He had an uncharacteristic frown of worry on his face and he said, “There was just a plane crash in New York. Right into one of the twin towers!” I barely had time to process what he had said when the late bell rang and my 2nd period class was assembled in the room.
At first I began the lesson as if nothing had happened. Then I told my students what I had heard and asked if they wanted to find out more themselves. They said yes, and I turned the television on just in time to see the second plane hit the other tower.
The rest of the morning passed quickly. Parents began arriving the school to take their children home. At the time, the mayor of Philadelphia’s son was attending Masterman and he sent a car to whisk his son away. The principal came over the PA and told the students what had happened and that they were going to be dismissed early. For the first time in my memory, that announcement did not produce a collective roar of approval.
People were terrified. The plane that was to crash in PA hadn’t been located yet and there were rumors that it could be headed to Philadelphia — to the historic sites of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. One 12th grade boy asked me what he should do, because he lived a block away from those possible targets.
This was before every child over age 8 owned a cell phone ( and may have contributed to every parent’s need to be in constant connection with their children that would become a part of our culture in the ensuing years). My students were confused and frightened and they were looking to me — their teacher — who was also confused and frightened — to offer some comfort and perspective.
In those moments on September 11, 2001, I remembered and afternoon in late November, 1963 when I learned of John Kennedy’s assassination . Mr. Ellsworth, the bus driver had told me and the other elementary school students as we got onto his bus that Friday afternoon. There was stunned and embarrassed silence on the bus as Ellsworth wept driving us home.
As we were watching the devastation, when the towers fell and the terror spread, I said to my students — “Watch — when you get home tonight and you’re watching this on tv and you’re hearing about all of the horror and the death, keep your eyes out for the ordinary people and how they will do kind and wonderful things to help each other — look for the stories of heroes who will save others, the stories of people opening up their homes, their stores, their hotels — stories of people who will travel from around the world to help search for victims or clean up debris… Because when there is an outbreak of evil, it is always met with a response of goodness..”
I don’t know where those words came from, but I was grateful for them. And in the following years, some of my students have told me that they do remember them and that they did go home and sure enough saw evidence of what I had predicted — merchants handing out water bottles to hundreds of thousands of commuters having to walk miles and miles to get home, shoe stores giving away sneakers to the women trying to make the trek in high heels.
In the coming days, we would all struggle to make sense of what had happened. In Drama class, we decided to make it the focus of a dramatic inquiry. I had introduced them to the work of Anna Deavere Smith — her Fires in the Mirror and Twilight Los Angeles — part of her In Search of America’s Character project in which she interviews people from all different walks of life, all different perspectives then from careful study of their words creates a performance in which she becomes them.
In the days after 9-11, students interviewed people about their responses to 9-11 — where they were when it happened, what they think America should do, how it was affecting their lives. Their interview subjects ranged in age from 9 -75 and they were from all different religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Many interviewed family members. The most touching of the interviews where the ones done by students whose siblings had witnessed the attacks— as students at NYU and GW. As the process continued, the students would shape the words and stories of their interviewees into monologues, then try to live inside the words until the “words became them.”
Below is an edited version of some of the monologues written and performed by my students in 2001. After the in-class performances of the full-length monologues, a group of students and I selected excerpts and juxtaposed those excerpts to create the scene presented below. We performed Dust to Dust at Interact Theater in June as part of our end of the year festival of student written plays.
And every year since, until my retirement, if September 11th fell on a school day, all of my classes would remember that day by reading and performing this scene — forged from the lived experiences of their older brothers and sisters.
Dust to Dust – Living Through September 11, 2001
By the Masterman Drama and Inquiry Class
Part I – Mundane
Eyewitness AISLING September 11th – I wake up and go to my 8 o’clock class.
Eyewitness BEN Well, I remember, I was sleeping on, in my bed, on the futon uh in the living room and uuuhh, I felt the building shake…
Young Man MARQUES I’ll be honest though. I was sorta excited. Like it’s something out of the ordinary. I mean that’s not to disrespect anyone you know, the situation in any way, but you know, sometimes daily life gets kinda mundane.
Eyewitness BEN …. and I kinda thought at first it was a sonic boom, but then I kinda figured what would they be testing jets over Lower Manhattan at ya know, 8:30 in the morning on a Tuesday. Uuuhm and I wasn’t quite awake yet either to really give it too much thought so I sorta fell back to sleep and whatever the e3xact time interval, I don’t remember from the news, but the second plane hit and the impact actually threw me off of my bed.
Little Boy NIRVANA Cause, when I first heard about it, I didn’t really know much about it. Soooo, I really wasn’t that scared..
Woman JULIA A workman stopped me and said, “Did you hear about it? A plane crashed into the World Trade towers.” I sort of blocked it out of my mind and went about my business.
Eyewitness AISLING Twenty minutes after seeing the broadcasts, I had to leave for my next class. The entire time I was wondering if terrorists would hit something next. Living in
Little Boy NIRVANA First we heard when I was in the bathroom, people from the other class saying “Yeah, we have a half day cause of a plane cra… a plane crashing. I was actually in Science. We had been hearing fibs like “a plane crashed into the Statue of Liberty, it’s about to fall.” That kind of stuff. My teacher finally stopped us talking about it and she started talking about it and I just thought it was awful. Cause who would do something like that? It’s just… unthinkable.
Part II – Chaos
Eyewitness JILL Everything was totally chaos on Tuesday. Everyone was running around not knowing what to do. When the second building fell down, cries came out, that like, it would break your heart if you had to hear. Everyone was screaming and running, It sounded like
Eyewitness BEN But I kinda got a sense from them that they didn’t even have a clear idea of what was going on and they were more concerned with ushering the ..the fire department and rescue squads that were already being deployed into the zone. Umm and at that point, ya know, no body was figuring that they were gonna collapse uhhh,,, so it was quite ya know ( beat) upsetting ( beat) afterwards to realize that ( beat) during those few moments, we were literally watching guys, ya know, sort of run towards their graves.
Young Woman (JULIA) And they kept showing the same scene over and over and over and over. It got really annoying. It’s okay for them to have it on regular tv, because it’s free, but if I’m paying for cable then I should be able to get what I’m paying for.
Woman ( CATHLEEN.) I would love to deport all of the Arab nationals who are over here on illegal visas or have illegal immigration papers and even those who have legal papers. I would put a waiver on a lot of civil rights that people carrying green cards have in this country. I don’t know what else to do.
Man ANTHONY Thank God I’m not in a position to have to come up with the solution. We have to stand by our government. We have to make sure we are all in line with what the President says and does.
Young Man MARQUES……. WHAT??? So like we don’t have to follow along the rules of decency and like it just doesn’t I dunno, we just do what we please with no regard to any other nation? I don’t mean to say we have it coming. I think it’s a tragedy a grand tragedy for all the people that died. But I think that’s where the tragedy stops. I mean we have the right to attack people, but they don’t have the right to attack us?
Part III – Too Philosophical
Eyewitness JILL That night, everything got so weird. It was like silent. It was like
Man DAVE. At Rosh Hashanah services the tragedy was on everyone’s mind. I think it set the background for all of the prayers that we were saying that day. It’s like all the prayers had a tinge to them now that they never had before.. and when I was ummmm leading the part of the service and when I came to the prayer for peace, I just felt very very emotional and at the end of the uhhhh section of prayers the last prayer is a prayer for peace. Every word just seemed so vitally important to me.
Young Man LAMAR – What they don’t realize is that this is a holy war. In my opinion, God is on the side of the believers, the Muslims. These cats think they just gonna wipe out the Afghans. Nah, man, nah. Not if it’s the will of God. We gonna be the ones wiped out. People gonna see how corrupt they are, ya know. I hope they uhhh turn to God, ya know. If they don’t, they gotta pay.
Young Man ANTHONY You know, I think what we are facing here is a war against a belief system. That means we are facing an intellectual enemy, not one of brick or mortar. The “enemy” theoretically could be your neighbor, best friend or the person standing behind you in the store. We are “fighting” something that is not tangible. Thought has no body. No headquarters to bomb. Thought is liquid. ( 2 beats) Was that too philosophical?
Part IV – Dust to Dust
Eyewitness JILL On Wednesday, the air changed and the wind blew towards us. It was like a really dense fog, the dust and asbestos were everywhere. I just walked around a lot, but I had to wear a wet paper towel on my face. Everything I wore was covered with dust.
Young Woman JULIA I think that all those people are dead now, so they need to stop looking for people. What they need to do is just dump all the debris in the ocean and have one big mass funeral and memorial service. That would be a lot easier. Because they’re not going to find any more people alive so it’s a waste of time to keep looking for people. And they want you to send clothes and money and stuff up there, but for what? What they need to do is just dump all the debris in the ocean.
Eyewitness BRONWEN There were people lined up cheering for the workers as we passed by. People were crowded along the street to thank the rescue workers. They had water and food and all this stuff to give to the rescue workers on the bus. There were people of all ages and all races out cheering.
Man ANTHONY The main thing right now, people have to get on with their lives which is hard to say and hard to do considering what happened. But I guess that’s why we’re the
Eyewitness JILL It’s weird. I am a passive person who doesn’t believe in war and never did I think I would be for murder, but sometimes I catch myself wanting those sons of bitches to die. You know what I keep wishin? I mean I keep thinking about when my friend first told me, I mean man, I wish, I just wish, wish I could go back to that one second when I just, I just didn’t believe him.