9/12… The Day After

Photo credit: Kim Carpenter
Photo credit: Kim Carpenter

Everyone thinks of their brain as ‘“The Great Machine” … that organ that makes us … us. Actually, that’s kind of a thin job description.

It does lots more than wind our minds. It shields and cushions us … and tucks away our worst fears into deep sanctuaries. Our minds smother horror in ways we barely understand. And barely appreciate.

This morning … as my brain was waking up … a 9/11 video-meme jittered me. It was there for a long moment and then faded away. But my brain wouldn’t let go of it. Instead it traveled me back. … against my will … to stare at memories not touched in a long while … because my brain had bundled those flashbacks in a safe space.

Schools have been my home for most of my life. First as a student, then as a teacher. More than half a century if you gathered all the years together. Some folks live in labs or hospitals or offices or in studios. I lived in lots of schools, but there was one school I loved more than all the others.

I think 9/11 created the most vivid memories of the school l loved the most. I wasn’t anywhere near the city that day … twenty miles out in the ‘burbs … teaching high school social studies. No heroism here. But I realized straight away how tethered that school was to that event.

The second jet had just missiled its way into infamy … and I was off to the office to fetch my mail. And I ran right into a side of 9/11 very few saw. Or even heard about.

The guidance doors were flung open and the office was over-crammed with teary kids. In real panic. The reality was all coming together on TV’s everywhere. Kids were cut off from the most important folks in their lives. Most didn’t even know where they worked … or the company’s name. Nothing juices a disaster more than the unknown. That arsons the imagination.

Teachers, counselors, secretaries, and custodians soothed these kids and stuffed some calm into the confusion. Every adult was out of their usual situation … and each one was a marvel.

Teachers were shepherding batches of kids into classrooms … offering up soothing magic. Impromptu gatherings took place in hallways and stairwells and on outdoor stoops and campus hills. There were huddles everywhere. Inside and out.

Communications to the city were down … and that just fueled the unease. Reassuring secretaries queued up kids to use phones that didn’t actually work, but which eased their helplessness. Custodians marched handfuls to their hide-outs so they could try to make contact with their folks. Counselors knew who the most delicate hearts were and eyeballed us into special duty. Kids helped other kids. For hours.

It was a moment of magnificent human beauty … with a back-drop of horror.

We’d morphed into an emotional MASH unit. And we were so reminded that these teenagers were young and fragile … and not so far from stuffed animals and Underoos. But we also discovered who we were.

“Who we were.”
I’ve heard that expression a lot lately. Someone telling us … “That’s not who we are.”

I don’t think we need that sort of reminder at all. We damn well know who we are. We just don’t frame it … or wear it on our sleeves. We call on it when we need to … and tuck it away when we don’t.

The day after 9/11, we clustered the entire school together in a steamy-stuffy auditorium. The room was bulging, but without the usual buzz. Something was up. Solemn and teenagers are seldom companions.

But there we were … kids of every color, teachers of every political stripe, old Americans and brand new Americans … all glued together in the frightful aftermath that was still smoldering not so far from us all.

I don’t remember how many big shots were on the stage, but I’ll never forget two faces. One young and one not so young.

I am such a cynic … and I hate myself for it.

I imagined we were all in for another sermon-on-the-stage. Starchy, dutiful words that wouldn’t slip into the heart of anyone …. let alone a throng of teenagers. Then a microphone came alive and I heard the first words …

“If tomorrow all the things were gone I’d worked for all my life
And I had to start again
With just my children and my wife”

Wait a second!
I knew those words. That wasn’t sermon stuff.

On stage was Ilene … a very veteran English teacher quoting … of all people … Lee Greenwood.

Not Shakespeare. Not Twain. Not Hemingway. Lee Greenwood. As if he was a poet for the ages. And in that moment he was.

“I’d thank my lucky stars
To be livin’ here today
Cause the flag still stands for freedom And they can’t take that away”

That room went silent-still. Almost breathless. Except for one child. A girl.

Within easy eyesight was Katrina. Not long out of Peru. Here a handful of years. Mouthing every word along with Ilene.

“And I gladly stand up
Next to you and defend her still today”

I heard her voice grow louder … and lots of kids were up on their toes … rubbernecking to pinpoint the audience echo. And Katrina just followed Ilene’s lead and matched her word for word.

“Cause there ain’t no doubt, I love this land
God bless the USA”

This cynic cried. I did. I swear.

Then the special duet ended … and the building vibrated from applause. And the sweet thunder didn’t stop for a long, long while.

And we all … every one of us … gulped some sweet, fresh air because we knew who we were. Lee Greenwood had told us. And two ladies … separated in life by decades … had tutored us all.

And now the teenager and the gentlewoman live forever in my mind. As they were that day. When they showed us who we were.

You should mind your schools. They mind your children. Miracles happen there. Most you never see.

God bless the USA.