Thank God it's Friday

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Monday, September 10

Today is the first day of the school year. I've spent the whole weekend working - planning the curriculum, buying classroom supplies, worrying about the minutiae of the first week with new students.

As my 12 and 13-year-old pupils line up outside, I have my usual start-of-the-year jitters. I ask them to make name tags that include an alliterative adjective describing themselves. I hope they don't think this is too corny. Aaron chimes in with: "That's not corny, Justine. That's cool!" Many of his classmates nod in agreement and get to work. I am exhilarated by their enthusiasm, and reminded why I teach.

Tuesday, September 11

9am We dive into learning about how to have constructive group discussions ("accountable talk") by going over the novel they've read over the summer, My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.

9.25am Abby pokes her head into my room. As it's her first year teaching, I figure she needs to ask me a question. I step outside. "A plane just hit the World Trade Center." "Oh my God," is all I can say.

I don't know what to do. What is going on? Should I stop my lesson now and tell the students? I wish I had a TV in here so I could get some concrete information.

9.55am At the end of the period, I tell the class that I've heard a plane has flown into the twin towers but that I don't know any more than that. I tell them I think it's a big deal. They burst into questions: who was on the plane? Why? How?

10.10-11am Rob Rhodes, our vice-principal, comes on the PA system. "The World Trade Center has been struck by two planes. It is serious. We urge you to remain calm until we know more. You will not be allowed to leave the building for lunch."

Melissa, a fellow seventh-grade teacher, and I head down to the first floor, where staff gather around a TV. People start filling us in: passenger jets hijacked, one tower fallen, Pentagon hit too. The second tower falls in. Melissa sobs. I feel very small.

It later dawns on me that many kids may have a hard time getting home. All subways are shut. Are buses running? What if some kids can't get home? How will I get home?

11.15am I join the rest of the middle school staff in the ninth-floor cafeteria. Every few minutes, Sheila, an old-time, colourful Brooklynite who works in the office, announces the names of the children whose parents are downstairs waiting to pick them up. She mangles the pronunciation of many names, but no one seems to care.

Josh Wood, a student of mine, wanders over saying, "Where is my mom? I want to get out of school."

"Josh, have a little sympathy," says Shira, another student.

"Josh, people are dead," I add.

"I just want to go home."

12 noon Attendance has dwindled to less than half. Sheila keeps calling names. I get the remaining students to help me organise my classroom library. We listen to the radio.

Aaron, the kid who lit up my world yesterday, waltzes in 15 minutes late. He looks forlorn. I ask if he's OK.

"No," he says, "I'm hungry. Can I order a pizza?" "Didn't you eat lunch?"

"Cafeteria food makes me sick. Can I use your phone to order a pizza? Can you order us a pizza?" "Absolutely not. Besides, the phones don't work."

The phone. I should call Nick, my husband. I get through on my mobile first try. He sounds relieved.

1.30-2.15pm My class is getting restless. We try in vain to hook up the TV on the eighth floor. Some gather round the radio. Some stare out of the window, looking for fighter planes and gazing at the huge column of smoke rising from the south. Aaron is still yammering for a pizza.

2.30pm All the students still in school gather in the auditorium, where our chief guidance counsellor, Jonathan Gray, is on the stage. "We cannot let you out until we are sure you can get home. The E, F and 7 subway lines are running. Buses are running." Students are dismissed in groups based on their routes home. Each kid has to sign out.

4.30pm I make my way up to Grand Central Station. The streets are eerily quiet. No traffic. Men in camouflage, wearing berets and carrying machine guns stand at each corner. Many people are walking, all headed north. As I enter Grand Central and head towards my train, a big kid comes rushing in my direction. It's Chris Bialas, a pupil I never taught and barely know, who left my school last year to start ninth grade at Bronx Science, a prestigious magnet school. He grabs my elbows. "What happened?" "You mean you haven't heard? You had normal classes all day?" "Yes."

"What do you know?"

"I know that two planes hit the twin towers."

I start explaining. He dashes for the outside doors when I tell him that you can see the smoke as you look down Park Avenue.

5.15pm Peering down the platform at my stop, Queensboro Plaza station, I see people streaming off the Queensboro Bridge from Manhattan. My neighbourhood, largely industrial and usually deserted, is crowded. Some people think they are in Brooklyn. Volunteers are handing out water. Plastic cups litter the street. It looks like the finish line of a marathon.

5.20pm Home at last. Nick is glued to the television. We embrace. As I sit down I realise I am exhausted. My feet are throbbing. I feel mildly delirious.

8pm The mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, has just announced that schools will be closed tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 12

I've slept like a log. The phone rings constantly. I just want to keep talking and hearing familiar voices. What should I do with myself? I have tried to read but cannot concentrate. Abby calls at midday to ask me to join Melissa and her for a bike ride. Home again by 7pm. More phone calls. I have yet to tire of talking. Schools above 14th Street will open tomorrow. Staff report at 8.40am and kids come two hours later. Is this a good idea? Am I ready?

Thursday, September 13

Our principal, Kathy Pelles, tells us that none of our kids' parents or guardians are missing or dead. A miracle. She gives us a schedule. We are to meet with our advisories (tutor group) at 11 to talk about the tragedy. She has even given us a lesson plan with advice on how to act around the students. Two points strike me: "Emphasise that we are safe in New York"; and "If a student makes a derogatory remark about any ethnic group or person, make clear that ethnic stereotyping and slurs are unacceptable and will not be tolerated."

I go to my tutor group at 10.40am. Nine of the 15 students show up. Most of them spent yesterday glued to a TV set. As a result, Kira believes 40,000 people are missing, and Jesse reckons the Israelis did it. I have to repeat the message of Principal Pelles many times.

It's 5pm and I have to catch the train home. Melissa and I head up Lexington Avenue. After crossing 23rd Street we come to the Armory, where the walls are plastered with photocopies of missing people. The bright lights of TV crews surround the building. I am not prepared for this. I grab Melissa's hand and break down for the first time.

Friday, September 14

I couldn't sleep last night. Less than half of my first period humanities class is here. They are happy to read in silence while I figure out what to do with them for the final hour. I decide to do the basics of United States geography through a round of "states and capitals bingo". They love it, while I worry that the learning is too superficial. The game gives more than a few students the chance to learn how to distinguish the world map from the US map.

Perhaps we should consider Monday, September 17 the official first day of classes.

Justine Bonner teaches humanities to seventh-graders at the School of the Future, a small high and middle school in Manhattan, about two miles north of the World Trade Center. She is starting her fourth year as a state school teacher

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