Septmeber 11, 2001 began in Philadelphia as a beautiful late summer day. I remember thinking how beautiful the Center City skyline looked against the clear blue sky as I was driving to school along the river drive. I was feeling particularly blessed, loving my job as an English and Drama teacher at Masterman High School, and looking forward to an intellectually challenging year with my 11th and 12th grade students.
First period began and we had a stimulating discussion about the purpose of education and Salinger’s critique of school and “phonies” and what it meant to fall and who was the metaphorical catcher in the rye. When the bell rang, I stepped out into the hallway to greet my second period class when a colleague, Bill Synder told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
When my class entered, I was faced with a choice. Do I teach the same lesson about phonies, unreliable narrators and metaphors, or do I turn on the television and find out what had happened in New York. I chose the latter. Later, the students told me that they were grateful that I had done that. They spoke with disdain about the teachers who had continued teaching through the morning as if nothing were going on. Together we sat there, gazing up in shock at the old tv mounted to the wall and watched in real time as the second plane slammed into the other tower.
Of course I was terrified, confused, and uncertain of what to do or say. I knew even as I was standing there that these young people would remember how I reacted, what I did, what I said to them in these moments, perhaps for the rest of their lives.
I don’t know where it came from but I found the words. Perhaps it came from Mr. Rose, my 6th grade teacher who on November 22, 1963, another crystal clear beautiful day, told his class of disbelieving 11 year olds that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed. The word assassinated had yet to enter our vocabulary. He also told us that when we got home, we might see our parents crying. He told us that they would be upset but that we shouldn’t be frightened — that our lives were still intact and that our parents were still there to protect us. Those words helped me that afternoon when just as Mr. Rose had said, I got off of the school bus and saw my mother and all of the other mothers, waiting for us on the corner, their eyes still wet with tears.
As the announcement came over the loud speaker, telling the students that they would be dismissed early and to go right home, I felt all of their eyes on me. I took a deep breath and I said, “When you go home this afternoon, I want you to watch television. And you’re going to see something you’ve never seen before. You’re going to see people reaching out and helping each other. You’re going to see acts of bravery and kindness that will inspire you. These terrible disasters bring out the best in people. You’ll see.”
I’m not sure if I even believed these words myself as I uttered them. But they seemed to help my students as they gathered their books, ready to leave school at noon to return home in a world that was totally different from the way it was when they entered school that morning.
In the days and weeks that followed, I worked with my Drama and Inquiry Class to create the theater piece that is excerpted here. Each of the students interviewed a person about their experiences on September 11th. Some interviewed their parents. Others interviewed neighbors, friends, teachers. From the interviews, they created monologues then performed the monologues as the person they had interviewed. The most moving stories came from the students who had interviewed their siblings who were eyewitnesses to the attacks in New York and Washington. And as they performed their words in class, I could see the bonding that had taken place between them as sister listened to brother, brother became witness for sister then took their words deep inside themselves and made their siblings words breathe with life and witness.
For years, while I was still teaching, if September 11th happened to fall on a school day, I would begin each class by playing Bruce Springsteen’s Into the Fire.
And as the song was playing and the words were resonating in the silence, I would hand the class copies of “Dust to Dust,” the script of the theater piece their predecessors had created. They would read the words while the song played and as the music stopped, they would spontaneously take turns reading the words.
I imagine that during that time, each student was recalling where he or she was the moment they learned of the plane crash, the images of the buildings crumpling to the ground, and the people of New York City, lining the streets to offer water, food and shoes to the hundreds of thousands making the long and frightening trip back home.
So it’s ten years later. I am not teaching today, but I am remembering…
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 Washington, three blacks away from the White House I was nervous. I have never been more scared than I was right after Washington was attacked. Seeing people running in every direction from federal buildings was crazy. If the government is telling all federal workers to leave Washington and I’m stuck in the middle of Washington in my dorm room, of course I am going to be scared. I felt as though I was sitting in the bull’s eye of a giant dartboard.
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 New York herself was crying. I don’t think anyone knew where they were running. They just were. Seemed like they were trying to race back into time, you know, before this ever happened.
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 New York was asleep, for the first time ever. I was walking around taking pictures today. You know you’re used to seeing missing dog posters on every corner or so, but now it’s missing people signs every couple of feet. Pictures of these smiling faces – faces that are lost.
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 United States of America. Heal we will.
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.