I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news.
I’m sure we all do. I was teaching Grade 8 and the kids had just gone outside for recess.
I walked out into the hallway and a teacher’s aid came up to me and said, “Have you heard what happened to the World Trade Center?”.
Looking back, I realize he was somewhat in a sense of shock but since my mind couldn’t fathom anything of this magnitude ever happening and because of his odd tone of voice, I honestly thought he was starting to tell me a joke.
I said no and when he said “A plane crashed into one of the towers”, my first thought was, “Wow, I wouldn’t have expected him to tell such a sick joke.” Still, my mind was unable to accept that this was all too real.
He stared at me and I could see the horror in his eyes. Suddenly I knew. I ran for the library, the only place with a working television.
None of us knew how to process what we were seeing.
When I got there, there were already several teachers standing there watching the news coverage. Looking at the backs of them, I could see their shoulders shaking and I knew that they were crying.
I moved closer to the television and before I could even process what I was seeing on the screen, I witnessed the second tower falling. I stood transfixed to the images I was seeing for what felt like forever.
The bell ringing to bring the students back in from recess startles me back to attention and numbly I leave the library to bring them back inside. What happens after this seems a bit of a blur and somewhat surreal.
It was obvious to my students that something was wrong…it was written all over my face.
Scrapping our usual timetable, we spent our time processing what was happening and trying to come to some sort of comprehension about it. We went to the library with the other Grade 8 class and watched some of the coverage.
As we did, I began to realize that there could be people I knew in those buildings. There was anxious energy all around the school, one that was amplified by the knowledge that one of our fellow teachers’ husbands was a pilot and was possibly on one of those flights. (Thank God, he wasn’t.)
I remained calm for my kids, not even shedding a tear in front of them, until on TV they began to play the Star Spangled Banner.
I could see my amazing students whispering and elbowing each other, encouraging them to try to sing along “For Ms. Gagen” – knowing that I was an American here in this Canadian school, grieving for my country. As I heard their voices raise up in song, I lost it.
For weeks after 9/11, our classroom changed in light of these events.
One of my students was from Iraq, a new refugee to the country who barely spoke any English.
On September 12th, he came to school with a black eye and swollen lip. Before I even got the chance to ask, my other students were all speaking at once, anxious to share the news.
It seems that as he was out playing basketball the night before, some kids from a nearby school had beaten him up for “looking like a terrorist”. They called him “Muslim scum” the entire time.
We learned that say, through his very broken English, that his family had to flee Iraq because they were Christians and were being persecuted. He had watched his brother being shot and killed on the street right in front of him.
He had grown up in fear, falling asleep to the sounds of bombs landing near his home. I’ll never forget what happened next. My students told him that they refused to allow him to live in fear anymore.
They told him that he was in Canada now, in a safe and free country. They said they were going to make sure his life here was a happy one.
My students formed little groups and took turns walking home with him. Whenever they encountered kids from the other school, they would form a protective circle around him, telling the bullies to leave him alone.
They made sure to invite him to all of their parties, to join their sports teams, and filled his life with love and acceptance.
On a bigger level, they insisted we scrap the novel we were originally going to read for English class. They wanted to use one that would teach them more about what was going on in the Middle East.
We read The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis, the story of a girl living under Taliban rule.
They started a school wide collection of materials to send to the oppressed people of the Middle East. We wrote letters and made peace angel pins and teddy bears to send to the children of those lost on 9/11 to let them know that we cared.
They made even more pins to sell to raise money for the 9/11 victims’ fund. The kids initiated a “peacemakers’” campaign in the school. They taught younger kids about peaceful resolution to problems, holding peace assemblies in the gym. We worked on a peace garden too, a quiet place for students to sit and reflect.
I was so proud of these kids. They didn’t just see a tragedy and sit around talking about it. They took action and did everything they could to make the world a better place.
This was a time of sorrow over a great loss, but my kids embraced it with great love. My prayer is that we keep on remembering 9/11 so that we too can embrace the world with great love.