Strength and faith and the hope they will find a way to navigate safely home
by Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist
Every year as September 11 approaches I am drawn back to that cloudless day and the eerie quiet that settled over Boston as the flickering, droning television screen became our collective stream of consciousness. There was no escaping the stark reality of that moment: America had been attacked, we had been attacked, and we were no longer safe behind our oceans as we had felt we were on September 10.
I vividly remember speaking with the speech and debate coach of Stuyvesant High School in New York several weeks later. Stuyvesant is only a few blocks from where the twin towers stood. When they made the decision to evacuate the school and send students home, they held an assembly to make the announcement and to let students know that there were no subways running, no ferries, and very limited bus service. They wished their students good luck and sent them off into the ghostly city hoping they would find their way home.
They all did make it home, some after walking most of the day. Many who were heading to the same neighborhoods stuck together while others trekked uptown alone. I could not imagine having to make such a decision, sending high school students out into a city under attack. But the school and the students faced the danger head-on and made the decision.
During that conversation with the Stuyvesant coach, I mentioned that I would be bringing speech and debate students to the city for a tournament in a couple of months and asked if it would be appropriate to bring them to Ground Zero. She said we absolutely should go, that everyone in the country should go, that it might be “the most important thing you ever do for those students.”
The trip was in January 2002, four months after the attack. I remember mapping out our itinerary for the Friday afternoon: Times Square, a walk to Grand Central Station, then the subway down to Fulton Street. As we walked to Grand Central, we were typical tourists trekking the big city. Most of the kids had never seen the Great Hall inside Grand Central. They were impressed by the soaring architecture—in a train station! — and how frantic yet orderly the endless flow of people was.
As we threaded the halls toward the number four subway, we passed one of the bulletin boards we had all seen on television and in the newspapers, covered with missing person flyers. We paused to look and read, touched and quieted by what we saw. Some of the flyers still seemed active and we could only hope that the person listed might yet be found. Others had been altered to memorials and remembrances. Many had the letters RIP slashed over the picture. Some bore the words “Found Alive!! Thank God!!” You could almost hear the voices of the people who had inscribed those joyous words. Mixed in with the flyers were American flags, candles, flowers, poems and scribbled messages.
Getting off the train at Fulton Street we were enveloped by the smell, a cloying mixture of old dust and smoldering ruins. The subway exit was on the perimeter of the security zone. Filing along that perimeter we began to take in the scope of the destruction. Construction workers moved around the wreckage, digging, hauling debris, poking, searching. They were just workers doing their jobs, but their jobs were epochal.
We came across a memorial on the fence of St. Paul’s Chapel. The fence was lined with mementos from all over the world: hats from fire and police departments from as far as Europe and as close as New Jersey; messages sent by children from around the country; letters, poems, stories, photos and drawings that made us feel the pain of the tragedy through others’ words and images. We found ourselves clinging to each other. No one’s eyes were dry.
Walking down Barclay Street, the moment became powerfully personal for me. I had strolled this street just a year ago with two friends, heading for the World Trade Center food court for lunch. We had circled the area trying to figure out how to get in and finally found an entrance right where I was now standing. The sky was empty of the towering glass and steel monoliths that had filled it then. In their place were cranes wrenching twisted steel girders, bulldozers crawling over moraines of crumbling debris, and an empty pit where the heart of lower Manhattan had pulsed.
Eighteen years later, we aren’t worrying much about foreign terrorist attacks anymore. Three-ounce bottles in quart-sized plastic bags, shucking shoes at airport security, showing ID at office buildings, the wallpaper of armed security at public buildings, public events, public spaces and now private houses of worship are a new normal we no longer connect to 9/11.
The remote possibility of an attack by foreign terrorists on a symbolic target has been supplanted by the certainty of regular mass shootings in schools, offices, malls, music festivals, nightclubs, churches and synagogues. We hold lockdown drills in schools and synagogues and train students and worshipers to survive live shooters. We advocate giving teachers guns. We replace stained glass windows with bulletproof polycarbonate. We pass legislation to make guns easier to get and to carry anywhere. None of this is a legacy of 9/11.
Our world can sometimes seem much more dangerous than we thought it was in those months post 9/11. It had to have been agonizing to send those Stuyvesant students out into a city that was under attack. But now the school itself could be under attack any day of the week. Where can we send our kids to safety now?
If there is a lesson to be learned from 9/11, it is that the threat to our society is no longer external. We don’t need to have nightmares about infiltrators from foreign lands. Our assassins are now domestic. They are motivated by hatreds and fears that cannot be defeated by military action abroad or policing at home. Until we find a way to stop such attacks, we have no choice but to send our students to schools, to malls and into the world exactly as those Stuyvesant students went into the streets of New York City – with strength and faith and the hope they will find a way to navigate safely home.
Greg Cunningham coaches high school speech and debate when he is not busy supporting JFYNet blended learning programs.