The Gift by Betty Laluna
At 8:46 am on September 11, 2001, I was teaching a classroom of sixth graders how to solve simple equations. By 9:00 am I was incessantly interrupted by a barrage of public announcements…”Janet Morales please come down to the office with your coat and books” “Anthony Diaz please come down to the office with your coat and books” Michael Smith please come down to the office with your coat and books“….I heard police sirens and fire trucks and more interruptions from the PA system which by that point had become quite the annoyance.
By 9:03 am, about 1/4 of my classroom was empty, I noted it was strange just how many of my students had medical appointments that day…I thought it odd so many in the same school were pulled out of class but I continued with my lesson, business as usual. We were going over a lesson on how to distinguish between facts and opinion as my student population grew smaller and smaller by the minute.
By 10:30 am I had perhaps 1/4 of my total class size present and accountable. I continued with no idea or clue as to what happened. I carried on…
A little bit before lunch our Teaching Coach pulled me out of the classroom and shared: “There was an attack on the World Trade Center at 8:45 this morning the buildings are gone.” My knees buckled from underneath me and I began to sob uncontrollably. I was told not to say anything to the children and to continue teaching. I returned to the classroom stunned. The students saw the look on my face my eyes red from crying, lips swelled…you know how your face gets when it’s had a really good cry. I was a mess. My students grew concerned, they asked me what was wrong. I couldn’t speak and their asking just caused more tears to stream down my face. It was early in the school year, we hadn’t bonded yet – but every teacher knows that even in the classroom, we take the oath to protect our kids at whatever cost…we are also the surrogate Mommies during the school day and so it just wasn’t about me but these kids sitting in front of me. I didn’t mean to alarm them with my tears. I stood there trying desperately to compose myself. I gestured with my hand “give me a minute” and I began to take deep breaths. The mass exodus of students from my building began to make sense, the sirens began to make sense but now they took on a more ominous turn…I was eleven years old again, the same age as my students and this time I was the one guilty of abandonment.
Contrary to what I was instructed to do, once I was able to utter a sound I began to share that the World Trade Center had been attacked. This of course found me sobbing uncontrollably once more. Moreover, my student’s didn’t quite understand the significance of this, I was greeted by blank stares. The previous year I had a classroom of students who had no idea what the Twin Towers were. I taught a lesson in math and was attempting to demonstrate the concept of parallel lines and I used the Twin Towers as an example. A majority of my students had no point of reference. I’ll disclose I taught in East Harlem, an up and coming but back then “Inner City” neighborhood in Manhattan. I am thankful I was able to take my students to see them. The DOE has very strict rules on class trips to hear some administrators tell the story, and so I had to draw up a whole elaborate scheme about how we were going to have a Science lesson in Battery Park City on “Bird Watching.” This was the only creative angle I could find to provide the opportunity for my students to see the buildings from the park. Little did any of us know on that lovely June day they would someday cease to exist. I am proud of my little moment of defiance, my Principal having no grounds to deny me despite the arrogant smirk on his face. I presented my lesson plan and we arrived at compromise.
In the midst of this terror, I remember reflecting upon that moment in the park months before, where before returning we dummied up our ‘instructional‘ field trip reports to justify our day in the sun, one eager student over embellishing he saw a bald eagle. I so loved teaching, I really had such affection for each and every one of my students, their distinct little personalities – even the ones that knew exactly where they might best push that button which would reveal just a little bit more of me to myself. I wondered if my former students who graduated and were now in Jr. High School connected to this event any more so than the students sitting in front of me. Were they okay? I wondered so many things. I wondered if I’d ever see my own child again. This might seem strange to someone and a bit extreme; however, with no access to a radio, television, a telephone or the outside world, all I had at my disposal were the rumors and there were plenty. One parent shared they bombed former President Clinton’s office on 125th Street. Another parent shared there were more planes flying around with explosives, there was another rumor somewhat based on truth that a third plane was shot down in Pennsylvania. My world was now at surreal.
I knew I was in no shape to teach, and I suggested that given the dwindling class size and what happened perhaps an assembly in the auditorium might be in order. I thought it prudent to distract them while the adults had a chance to absorb what had just happened. I reasoned even IF the children seemed unaffected there was no way a teacher could pull it off, not if they had any clue what exactly this meant. We had the facilities and the technology to entertain them with videos. My suggestion fell on deaf ears and I was sent back into the classroom barely able to function. If this was the “IT” I had been waiting for, what else was there to teach really? I couldn’t comprehend the lack of emotion or connection administration had towards this whole event. I understand how it would be unwise to get the children riled up which is WHY it made sense to me to distract them; however, there was no consideration at all for the emotional burden this placed on staff. Our school was on lock down which meant no one was to enter or leave the building; however, they failed to acknowledge that perhaps we might have had a loved one in those buildings, or we might have had a child in the near vicinity. Leave no child behind but your own was more the policy that day and it exacerbated my own personal journey in coming to terms. In fact it actually raised a level of trauma that I had been unaware of and was unable to articulate until years later.
While my students were eating lunch I tried to get an open line to find out how my own child was doing. The lines were dead. I had no cellphone. Another teacher allowed me to try on her cellphone however, those lines were near dead too. It was a hit or miss. At a certain point I was able to communicate with my mother. My son was across the bridge in another borough. The bridges, trains and buses were all shut down. I called frantically my desperation came from the notion that if this was gonna be it…if we were all doomed, if planes were flying with explosives, or perhaps a dirty bomb, I wanted to die holding my child. I did not want to die in the confines of that Public School in East Harlem. I wanted all my students safe and sound with their parents…”Why weren’t all my students picked up?” My Principal breathing down my neck: “Ms. Vega, hurry up there are others who also need to make phone calls”
I got a line in to my son’s father. I told him I was on lockdown I couldn’t leave. Actually technially I could; but, I could also lose my job so in essence, I was trapped at no exit. I had no choice I had to stay. But what kind of parent would this make ME? I felt guilty for leaving my child to die in a stranger’s arms instead of my own…I got ahead of myself there I was in full panic mode, now hyper-ventilating. I called a cousin in Queens, an Uncle in Queens, I desperately tried to reach family members to pick up my then four-year old son. Nothing…they answered but none seemed too concerned. I could not reason or rationalize this. I finally got through to the Director of the daycare center, I was in tears all over again…”Please, please take care of my baby.” He re-assured me “Don’t worry, the whole city is shut down but your son is in good hands and I don’t care how long it takes, we’ve got food, we have beds, and we will protect your son. Calm down, we’re okay, he’s okay we’re all gonna be okay.” I then began to plot how I was going to walk home because cars were not being allowed to drive across the bridges. Should I stay or should I go? I began to rationalize my walking out of that building to get to my child. I didn’t give a fuck about the whole “Leave no child behind” What about my own? Today those students are in their 20’s. I wonder how much “Leave no child behind” has served them and whether or not they’ve been educated to the extent that they truly understand the domino effect of world events. Have they developed into critical thinkers or are they still reacting to what appears to be the implosion of society with blank stares…or is it learned apathy? I’d like to think this is just my cynicism but I’m not too convinced that it is.
By last period I was down to three students. Their last period was Art. I asked the Art teacher would she be willing to dismiss them. There was no way I could stay in an empty classroom for 45 minutes so that I could walk them down three flights of stairs when instead I might be able to get a head start in walking across the bridge. She agreed to do this and I was met with a hint of disapproval by my Principal when I asked him whether I would be allowed to leave early; however my circumstances were different. My peers had family members to step in, to pick up their children, I was a single parent and my kid was left out there with no one to retrieve him. Out of a class of 33 students, only three parents left theirs behind. I did not see the logic in my having to do the same to my child. There is a point where parents must also be accountable and in my case we were not speaking of parents that were affected, in fact I learned the three students left had parents who did not work. My first fear was the possibility that perhaps someone in my classroom might have lost a parent that day. There were so many thoughts racing in my head…it was hard to sort out the push-pull.
You could smell the fire all the way up north in East Harlem. Days later you could smell the dead bodies everywhere…the putrid sweet stench of death enveloped the city. My fear was a friend who worked down in the area might have been dead. As luck would have it, I later learned she was okay. She was late for work. Just exiting the subway she saw the bodies falling from the buildings. She shared something about getting to a payphone when a friend dragged her back down into the subway and they were able to catch the last train out of lower Manhattan to safety before the buildings collapsed and people had to run for their lives. If I recall her words, she went into a dissociative state sharing with the woman who in a sense rescued her: “Those are not bodies, those are dolls falling.” I am thankful she’s alive. We were in the midst of a rift and I don’t know if I would be able to live with myself if I were never able to say goodbye. We assume we have forever and therefore can afford to hold grudges.
As I sped across the RFK bridge darting in and out of lanes fearful as a revenue generating bridge it might be blown up, I prayed all across. I had never driven like a madwoman before taking every risk just to get across it. I would continue to drive that way across the bridge for a year concerned about what appeared to me to be a lack of diligence on the part of ‘security’ placed there. I noticed they’d pull over a random truck but I kept wondering…”What about the yellow cabs?”
By the time I got home hours later, my ex had finally picked up my son. We got to the area around the same time and so within ten minutes of my arriving home he walked in the door with him. I was angry at my ex as I could not reason or rationalize how on earth if he knew I could not get our child, how he could be so nonchalant about wanting to get to him. I think that day everyone somewhat disassociated. Nothing in the reactions of others made any sense to me. If we’re dealing with the unknown I reasoned better safe and in the company of your loved ones than sorry. Apparently I was in the minority that day. I picked up my little boy and cried and cried and held onto him so tightly…I noticed my ex seemed to think I was overreacting, but the impact of this particular event in my eyes was worthy of the terror I felt inside.
I packed our bags that night and left for a relative’s home further out in the borough. It would be two weeks before I could sleep in my own bed. I know people around me thought my fear was a little high-pitched; however, I didn’t know at the time what sparked my hypervigilance. Oklahoma got an entire week off when one of their buildings had been blown up. New York City had ONE DAY to get their shit together. This was TRAUMA and it did not matter if you were near the buildings or not. This country had never been attacked on the mainland. Thursday, September 13, 2011 Teachers were to report for duty to ‘counsel’ the children. Humph. I spent a day in a classroom talking to students about the events that had no point of reference and therefore did not seem to be in need of any particular comfort. It did not appear from my observations to be a loss to them. It became evident by their reactions, most of them were disconnected from the rest of the city. They knew their community but they did not realize nor had they been exposed enough to world events to truly understand the significance of this event. I’m not so sure that was a bad thing.
In 1979, at the age of eleven, I lost my father to a violent crime. There is trauma enough in knowing you’ve lost a parent to gun violence, but it’s even more traumatic when you realize that he loved you enough to walk a whole block and a half with a bullet in his chest to come home and say goodbye to you. I opened the door not knowing what was on the other side. In shock I ran away from him instead of toward him. At eleven years old, my teachers thought it was important that we were aware of world events. I attended a Catholic School where most of the time I tuned them out, but even in the midst of daydreaming, doodling and sharing love notes with my 6th grade school crush, information would seep in. I learned about the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the Ayatollah Khomeini, and I learned how the Russians with their Nuclear Weapons were the enemy, perhaps some of my own teachers acting out their trauma from the duck and cover drills where they were told to seek safety under their desks, and I learned about how the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor miles away was bubbling to boiling and could go at any minute causing mass casualties and disaster. On the edge of this stood my own personal world catastrophe, my father was murdered. I couldn’t quite make sense of it, how one minute someone could be alive and well and the next minute they’re dead. A few days prior he shared with me he was dying but I was led to believe we had some time left, I did not expect death would come in an instant. It was too much at once to process and I did not realize it then, but I suffered Trauma. I went into a dissociative state. People would offer their condolences and I’d reply “It’s okay.” The thing is, what do you say to someone who is saying: “I’m sorry?” I didn’t know what to say, I knew they didn’t do it. It made me feel even more awkward. I didn’t really want to speak about it, and I didn’t know what anyone wanted me to do, or how I should respond although the truth was it wasn’t okay, but it was easier to say that it was. I did not want to deal with my reality.
The brain is a very high-tech machine when it comes to our thoughts. It will protect you. When presented with something you cannot reconcile, it will totally block it. Cognitively I knew my father was dead, but I did not understand, nor did I have words for the horror so instead my brain decided it would manifest in some irrational fear that the world was going to end and that is because for all intents and purposes in my eleven year old mind…my world DID end, we were just waiting for the culminating activity. So, every time the fire engines would race down the streets they became war sirens and I’d wake up from sleeping in a panic hyperventilating, it would take me some time to realize where I was and what was happening. I’d have nightmares where the bomb was dropped, sometimes even feeling the burning on my skin in my sleep and I’d wake up and cry from the horror. The therapists I saw after this whose job it was to identify my ‘problem‘ and irrational fear never quite caught on to this. It took me thirty some odd years to reconcile all of this and realize that there is some degree trauma. I realize that in life everyone suffers from trauma to varying degrees but having recognized where my source was is what allowed me to come to terms with FEAR. I could never label or identify my FEARS, I just knew they were. When I’d see a fight between two people, I’d panic. I’d panic because my mind would go into flight mode, “RUN!” because my mind would jump ahead zero to sixty and I anticipated guns would be drawn. There were a number of ways my unexpressed fear would come to the surface. My extreme reaction to 911 was one such manifestation. Three days post 911, my mother could not understand my utter panic and without realizing it I shared: “Those buildings were just like Dad. There one moment, gone the next.” The Harrier Jets flying above the city replaced the sounds of the war sirens, except this time they were real and tangible evidence I had reason to fear World War III. It wasn’t as if it was an impossibility.
The sights, sounds and stench of death enveloped the city. It went to bed with me, woke up with me, it was in my classroom for weeks after. We inhaled the remaining particles of the dead…the plume of smoke carried the decay far and wide for weeks and we were told to keep going. Mourning is for the weak I suppose.
Four days from now, we will embark on the 12th Anniversary of 911. The country sits at the edge of its seat once again facing the fear of war. This time in Syria; however unlike past military actions, we are dealing with Superpowers who are not sitting well with our position to strike, and a majority of our Allies are not supporting us either. Simultaneously, opinions on the proper course of action are wide-ranging. Many afraid to even speak or hold an opinion because to do so, might label one a traitor.
What I’ve learned is that FEAR stems from a place of feeling out of control. It causes anxiety, panic and stress. It destroys the body from the inside out. It eats away at you a little bit everyday until one day you are frozen and cannot move. It is TERROR. I’ve accepted I am powerless and cannot control anything. To believe I can is an illusion. I can only control me. I am not at apathy. I am a survivor. Whatever happens…wherever this goes…be determined to survive.
May God be with us all.