Through lunch and into the afternoon, students and teachers sat in darkened classrooms and watched fuzzy television screens show the footage of one tower collapsing, then two. The history teacher said the word “terrorist,” and I had no idea what he was talking about.
I had been teaching English for a week, but it felt like months. I was sweating in front of a classroom of Catholic schoolgirls, trying to talk about a young adult novel I can’t remember, though I know it had something to do with the Revolutionary War. Years before, this girls’ private school outside of Philadelphia was converted from a nursing home, and my classroom, like the rest of them, was stuffy and narrow. I was 21, fresh from college, anxious and excited, breathless, overwhelmed.
The director of the middle school knocked on the door to tell the girls that something tragic had happened in New York City and asked if they had any family there, whether they needed to make a phone call to see if someone was okay. The kids looked to each other with big eyes, and some of them made their way into the office down the hall. The director whispered to me that thousands of people had been killed, that planes flew into the World Trade Center.
I had no idea how to carry out my script for the rest of the day. Did the themes from summer reading matter? Through lunch and into the afternoon, students and teachers sat in darkened classrooms and watched fuzzy television screens show the footage of one tower collapsing, then two. The history teacher used the word “terrorist,” and I had no idea what he was talking about.
My life in college on the Main Line had been pretty insular. I cared about social issues and my studies, but I knew little about politics or the latest drama that unfolded on the nightly news. The height of my political involvement was when I drove from Pennsylvania to New Jersey (where I was registered) to pull the lever for Al Gore in 2000. At the time, though, I did not feel the self-righteous anger that caused people to scan newspapers and internet sites or watch CNN throughout the day. My personal journey of writing and reading and graduating seemed very separate from all of that.
After school on September 11th, I went to my grandmother’s house, the place I was going to stay for one or two nights a week so I didn’t have to commute back and forth from my job in Bryn Mawr to South Jersey, where I would live until my best friend and I found our first apartment. My grandparents’ house was empty; they had left that afternoon to be with my great aunt, whose son was just rescued from the south tower, a building that had become a pile of rubble burning in the streets of New York City. Their house was the safest place I could imagine, where crocheted blankets stretched on the couches and licorice bags peaked open in the cabinet. For dinner, I went to a diner with my boyfriend, where we saw a news crew interviewing waitresses about the day’s events. Everyone was abuzz. Nothing felt the same as the day before.
A lot happened in the next 10 years, my twenties. I got engaged, then married, started and finished graduate school and bought a house, had one baby, then another. I left my first job and started teaching at public school, then community college. My husband and I canvassed for John Kerry, then Barack Obama, listened and read stories of fear, of oil, of rapture, of war.
But at the end of school on the day of the terrorist attacks, after most everyone had seen the images of collapse and fire, the administration called an assembly in the gym. We filed in quietly, students taking their place on the bleachers, teachers standing with arms crossed, rocking from one foot to the other. In my six years teaching at that Catholic school, where I ended up dodging first Friday mass and complaining about outdated practices, it was in that first week, feeling the echo of tragedy, that I held a yellow piece of paper with words someone had gathered and photocopied, and recited them, and sang them, and realized why we prayed.
This essay was originally published in 2011 in the blog anattitudeadjustment.com.
Jana Llewellyn is a former English teacher and writer of fiction and nonfiction, and she serves as associate editor at Friends Journal, a monthly magazine about Quakerism and spirituality in Philadelphia.