Memories hitch a ride on the coat-tails of bigger stories. So it is that we remember the everyday things in life as seen through the lens of something bigger, more important, and more memorable than our usual routine.
I remember exactly where I was when the news was released that President Kennedy had been shot. I was on the playground at my elementary school. The principal’s voice came over the loudspeaker loud and clear. We could hear his words booming as far as the chain-link fence that maintained a boundary between the street and rolling balls.
“Children. Stop. Stand still. Teachers and children, return to your classrooms.”
This had never happened before. What could it mean?
Accustomed to regular Bomb Drills and Earthquake Drills, we knew when to obey a business-like adult voice. I remember the hush as we quietly walked back to our second-grade classroom. It was only a few minutes before we were seated at the wood and metal desks and our teacher stood expectantly at the front of the room. She, too, seemed expectant and nervous.
We sat there, heads cocked toward the crackling classroom loudspeaker, waiting. Finally, the Principal came back with the news. President Kennedy had been shot. He was in the hospital. School would be dismissed early.
No one spoke. Our teacher was calm, but sad. We didn’t know what this would mean until much later. And it wasn’t until later that day we learned President Kennedy had died, and much much later that we understood what it means for a country to lose their leader suddenly and violently.
On September 11, 2001 I was at school again, but this time I was the teacher. And I was still caught unawares. At the time I was not in the habit of listening to the radio or television news in the morning (9/11 changed that). I ate breakfast, dressed, packed my lunch, and arrived at the high school campus unaware that America would be forever changed by the events of that morning.
It wasn’t until I walked along the corridor, as I noticed an unusually thick swarm of students gathered in the hallways, sitting on the floor, and clustered outside classroom doors, it seemed something was out of order. My “good mornings” were returned quietly until one student looked up at me from the floor and spoke, her voice hoarse and her eyes red from crying,”
“Mrs. Levenick, don’t you know what’s happened?”
Anything more than a change in Prom date was inconceivable. I shook my head.
“The World Trade Center has been hit by a plane. It’s my dad’s company.”
I didn’t believe her. How could it be true? I turned around and walked quickly to the faculty room where the news was verified. I knew less than anyone there. The story had been unfolding for some time. And now, the school announced, class as usual. Maintain routine.
It was a long long day. A virtual news blackout and six hours of nervous teenage girls on the edge of hysteria. I set the lesson plans aside and we spent the day talking about everything and anything. We would study The Odyssey later in the semester, tragedy and the human response. Of course, it wouldn’t have made much difference if school had been dismissed. It was probably just as well we could provide what limited support and reassurance possible. No one knew anything, except it was better to be with someone than alone.
September 11, 2001 remind me so much of that dark day in November when a booming voice called over the loudspeaker, “Children. Stop.”