Sunday, September 18, 2011

9/11 Personal Memories

On TV this week and at many websites I frequent, the topic for discussion is the events of 9/11. Sometimes the events themselves are recounted, while at other times, particularly on interactive websites, it's taken on more of a "Where were you when it all went down?" format. Of the major "Where were you?" events people still talk about, as in at least some of the people are still alive today when the event occurred, this is the only one during which I was alive. The others as I would consider them are Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination, and the Challenger explosion (its significance faded, but my mom told me it was really big at the time and for years afterwards, and lost its significance mainly after it paled in the wake of the 911 aftermath). In retrospect, I'm a bit surprised the tearing down of the Berlin Wall doesn't carry more significance in the grand scheme of things.

Anyway, all of this talk jogs my memories of where I was on that Tuesday morning when our world changed, and not for the better. The prior day, my mom, my brother, and I had a day off from school on a day on which most schools were in session. (My dad can take a vacation day whenever he chooses.) A day off from school when most other students are in session = an excellent day to visit an amusement park. We had the three-day pass for Disneyland. We made the long trip down by car on Friday after school. We did Disneyland on Saturday and Sunday, but our real day to enjoy the park was Monday. Lines were short, even to the major attractions, and we had very short waits if any waits at all on rides. I had grown just tall enough that if I stood my very straightest, I could go on a few of the more exciting rides. It really didn't matter, anyway. My favorite ride was always Pirates of the Carribean, which -- I think -- didn't have a height limit, anyway.

Monday, September 10, was as close to a perfect day as I remember my family ever experiencing. My mother had been dealing with major health problems including leukemia, but her recovery was beginning to look promising, and she was feeling unusually strong that day. My brother and I, who usually couldn't agree on anything, seemed to have called an unspoken truce. It helped that, with my mom's returning health, one parent could accompany each child for part of the day and allow us each to ride the rides we wanted. Both parents carried cell phones at this point, and my dad didn't have to worry about my mom suddenly falling ill in another part of the park without him being aware there was a problem. A quick cellphone call would have immediately apprised him of the situation. I even remember that, when we were buying souveniers at the end of the day, I found a Tinkerbell dress that I really wanted, but was about three dollars short of the cash required. My parents were big on setting limits and not exceeding them. After my brother made his purchase, he had more than three dollars left, and he gave me the three dollars so that I could buy the Tinkerbell dress that I wanted. Moments like that between Matthew and me were rare at that time.

We left the park a little later than we should have, considering that my mom, my brother, and I all had school the next day. My dad planned to stay in the southern California area to work for about three days. My dad cautioned my mom that if she became too tired at any point, she should get a hotel room. If we all missed a day of school, the Earth would not cease to rotate on its axis. Matthew and I thought this sounded great, and were asking our mother roughly every seven minutes if she felt too tired to drive any further. She didn't feel too tired, however, and further, really wanted to make it back to school the next day.

So on we drove until the wee hours of the morning, making it home at about 2:00 a.m My mom said later that she felt guilty dragging us out of our beds after only about five hours of sleep, but she did it anyway. We slept slightly later than normal, so the radio and TV were not turned on in our home that morning. My mom had a CD in the car stereo from the night before, and when she turned on the car, it was still playing. She didn't bother to take it out, so we heard no news in the car, either.

Once we reached our school and were dropped off on our playground, I remember noticing less activity than normal. Attendance was down that day. Small groups were clustered randomly around the blacktop. Before I could join a cluster, the bell rang, and I hurried to line up.

That was one of my two years in Catholic school. In retrospect, if I had been one of the teachers or administrators in charge that day, I would've made it a religious experience of sorts and would have either held a mass or would have at least given each class an opportunity to pray in the adjacent church. We could see many parishioners coming to the church - many more than would show up on an ordinary school day. This only added to the state of agitation.

The teachers were apparently told to say nothing about the situation to their students. Children who already knew about it were told not to talk about it to others. The strategy seemed to be to adhere to routine and hope that normalcy would get us through the day. What we actually had was anything but normalcy and routine, though. My teacher, and I assume she was acting in a manner similar to the way all the teachers on the staff were conducting themselves, spent the school day parked in front of her computer, frantically switching from one news site to another. She turned her monitor as far as she could in order to obscure our view of the screen, but we still saw bits and pieces of images. When my teacher wasn't on her computer, she was on her phone. Work for us to do was posted on the board. Some students were doing it, while others weren't. No one was causing any particular mischief, but many students were blankly staring at walls, looking as closely as they could at the computer monitor, and silently writing notes to others. These were days before parents typically sent their six-  and seven-year-olds to school with cell phones of their own. If a similar thing happened today, many of the children would be armed with communication devices and would contact their parents.

Before much time had elapsed, the intercom began ringing, and children in our classroom were called one at a time to the office and told their parents were there to pick them up and that they would be leaving for the day. We started the day with only two-thirds or so of the class. After several of such calls, only nine students remained in the class of thirty-six students. It was determined by someone in charge that recess would be cancelled. We sat in the classroom -- seven other children of teachers and school administrators, my brother, and me. Our teacher paid very little attention to us. She continued to devote her attention to her computer and to her telephone.

I usually finished regular school assignments very quickly, then moved on to my extra projects that were designed to keep me productively occupied. I finished the regular work, but then put my head on my desk. The teacher noticed this, and called out my name. I think I had fallen asleep by that point. She probably thought that letting children sleep in class would not be conducive to maintaining the normal routine, so she rapped on my desk with a ruler to wake me. I sat up and stared blankly at her. My brother told her he thought I might be sick. "No one is allowed to be sick today," she answered him.

When it was time for lunch, instead of walking in line to the cafeteria at the appointed time, we stayed in the classroom. Lunch trays were delivered to our classroom. In our haste earlier that morning, my mom had forgotten to pack a lunch for me. I never ate school lunches because there was usually nothing on the tray that I would eat. A lunch had not been ordered for me, which would have been a problem on an ordinary day, but since so many students for whom lunch had been ordered were no longer at school, lunch trays filled with something masquerading as food were plentiful. My teacher put a tray on my desk in front of me and told me that my mother could pay for it the next day. As I looked at the lunch tray, my skin probably took on a tone somewhere between alabaster and gray. "Just eat it and be thankful," my teaacher ordered. The tray held half an egg salad sandwich, a pickle, and coleslaw. A carton of 4% milk took up the remaining indented spot on the styrofoam tray. We drank 1% milk at home. Egg salad and cole slaw were both on my Donner Party list. Pickles hadn't made it there just because they were something we never had around the house, anyway. Neither of my parents must have cared for pickles.

Even sitting at a desk with that tray in front of me was more of a challenge than I could manage. Actually taking a bite of the food was beyond question. I opened the milk and inserted the straw, taking a few small sips. Four per cent milk was far too rich for me, but it was easily the least of the evils of what sat before me, and I certainly didn't want to call anyone's attention to my lack of eating. At our school, we were expected to eat what was in front of us, whether our parents sent it or the school prepared it. Catholic schools have certain prerogatives that public schools don't. Forcing children to eat is one of them.

My brother looked at me sympathetically. He was eating the food from a tray as well because that's what he did every day. He wasn't a problem eater, and it was easier for my mom to pay the school to prepare lunch for him than to make a second sack lunch. He understood that I wasn't picky because I wanted to be; I was just born that way. If he had sat closer to me, he might have eaten the lunch for me.

There was nowhere to hide the food, and I couldn't hide, either, so I stared straight ahead and hoped that our teacher was too engrossed in her computer and phone calls to notice the full tray of food that continued to sit in front of me on my desk. After what must have been most of the lunch period, her eyes zeroed in on me. She walked to where I was seated, pulling her wheeled chair with her. "You must eat your lunch!" she said in a quiet but firm tone. She picked up the sandwich and held it to my mouth. My lips remained sealed and my teeth were firmly clamped inside. She next picked up my spork and filled it with coleslaw. She held it to my mouth and commanded, "Open you mouth, Alexis." I did, and she forced the slimily coated pieces of cabbage into my mouth.

I don't remember the exact order of what happened. I held the food in my mouth and tried to swallow, but couldn't. Tears came to my eyes. Then my gag reflex kicked in. I covered my mouth and stood to somehow make it to the trash can. The teacher held onto my arms and wouldn't allow me to proceed. My brother, sensing looming disaster, got up, picked up the trash can, and brought it to me, placing it directly under my mouth. I opened my mouth, and in the next several seconds, out came the coleslaw, the milk, and most of what I had eaten for breakfast hours earlier. I then fainted.

I remember the teacher kneeling over me while blotting my face with damp paper towels. "Oh, dear," she said. "You probably really are sick, but the office has informed us that there are to be no sick children today." The teacher lifted me from the floor back to my chair. "Your mother can't come get you or she would already have picked you up," she commented.

This alarmed my brother Matthew. He later said he though it meant mom wouldn't be able to come get us at the end of the day and that we were possibly doomed to spend the whole night in the school. He, too, began to cry -- not loudly, but tears ran down his cheeks.

"Not you, too, Matthew," the teacher sighed in an exasperated manner. The teacher of this class wasn't an unkind person, but she wasn't ideally suited to working with young children, and patience wasn't a quality she possessed in abundance.

Following lunch, we again were not allowed out for the usual recess that would take place at that time. I'll never know for certain, but I don't believe that the teachers and administration were worried for our safety on the playground. They were more concerned that the children who came to school with any knowledge of what had happened before school would share their knowledge with the rest of us, and they would have mass hysteria on their hands. So they confined us to classrooms for one more recess.

Somehow we got through the remainder of the afternoon. The teacher finally conceded that it was at least OK for me to put my head down on my desk as she went from her computer to her phone. The dismissal bell rang. Matthew and I gathered our belongings and headed toward the room where our after-school child care program was held each day. Usually our Aunt Victoria would pick us up as soon as she had finished whatever diary business that she needed to do, typically about thirty minutes after school ended. We were met by our mother on the way. "Mommy!" we exclaimed in unison as we threw ourselves at her.

My mother apologized for not being able to leave her work earlier to pick us up, and said that Daddy had been driving continuously since ten-thirty a.m. and tried hard to make it home in time to pick us up early, but that traffic was heavy and he would still be on the road for a bit. My mother looked wan and weak, but still she carried me to the car.

When we got home, Mom got out maps of the United States and explained in simple terms what had happened where with each of the four planes. She didn't turn on the television. She put soft music on the stereo, laid me on the sofa with a blanket, and took Matthew into the kitchen with her to prepare a light meal of soup, crackers, and jello. I could hear Matthew telling her about our day and asking questions, and could hear her answers.

Daddy got home a few minutes before dinner. He lifted me off the sofa and sat with me on his lap in the rocker-recliner until dinner. We prayed together before dinner, as we always do, but a little longer and a little more specific to the events of the day. We ate dinner together, with some conversation, but no one said a lot, and with no one forcing me to eat anything,

I can remember worrying about my Uncle Patrick on my mom's side, who is an airline pilot, and about my Uncle David, who was and still is in the Air Force. More than anything, I remember feeling much relief about the distance between our home and the places where the incidents had taken place, although with the ever-present awareness that no one among us could know where the terrorists might next strike. I recall having bad dreams that night; at some point, both Matthew and I ended up in our parents' bed with them for the rest of the night.

The next day we stayed home with both parents, I because I was still weak and shaky, and Matthew probably because my parents just felt like keeping him at home with them.

At some point in the next few days, both of my parents spoke with school personnel. My mom's concern was that, with the very best of intentions, in their desire to insulate and protect us form all that was happening, the school personnel had instead left us confused and all the more terrorized. Sometimes it's better to know the very basics of a situation, however horrific it is, than to be left with nothing but one's imagination to determine what might be the cause of all the commotion. My dad's concern was with the  "no children are allowed to be sick" policy, and that I had remained at school without being assessed by a health professional or even a paraprofessional, and no attempt had been made at parent contact when I was sick. He expressed that in the future, if either of his children showed signs of illness, a parent needed to be contacted. If a parent could not come to get the one of us who was sick, arrangements would be made for someone else to come.

I didn't see a great deal of the television coverage, so most of it that I saw on the television news programs in this past week I was seeing for the very first time. In retrospect, if I had seen it at the time, in a limited amount, with sensible adult commentary to what I was witnessing, it would have answered some of the questions in my mind.

The thought of Osama Bin Laden hiding somewhere in the world --anywhere, basically, as in perhaps behind the handball courts at school or even in the girls' restroom -- was very daunting. That aspect of the situation might have been addressed and explained in a more edifying and calming way.

Overall, the school, presumably with good intentions, turned the day into one filled with terror. Only when my mother arrived, and later my father, were our needs considered and met in any way. Only then were we actually taken care of with regard to the situation. I hope that my former school and others who handled the crisis equally poorly, or even worse, have learned something about children and crisis and how best to mitigate inevitable damage. Though the fullness of the terrorists' plans was at that point unknown, we were thousands of miles way from the places where the events happened. I hate to think of how my school would have coped with the situation had they been located blocks from ground zero, literally in the shadow of the fallout.

1 comment:

  1. It's hard to believe a teacher would have behaved in such a callous manner. Perhaps she was in such shock herself that she did the best she could. It's sad that one person out of the entire staff couldn't have been functional enough to pull everyone together and either make a collective decision to cancel school for the day or to do something meaningful