The Legacy of 9/11

It was a beautiful day, crisp air, clear skies, the ultimate antithesis of what was about to unfold that morning.

Most of us older than 21 clearly remember where we were when we heard the unthinkable: the towers had fallen. I can remember what I was wearing and the sickening fear for the people I loved who were in the city. We were near enough to tragedy to see the smoke and almost everyone I know knows someone who was there. Two people I went to high school with died that day.  A man in our town did not come home to his family. A friend lost his brother-in-law. A neighbor lost her cousin.

It was a day for saying, “I love you” to our children and to each other.

9/11 was a dark defining moment for a generation with memories of neither Pearl Harbor nor Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby.

The juniors I was teaching that Tuesday morning seemed suddenly so very young. Teen swagger and bravado vanished. We huddled around a battery operated radio, anxious for a sign that everything would be OK, that someone was in charge.  When we all heard the unmistakable overhead roar of military pilots en route to the city, they surged toward me with the unconditional collective expectation that I would be able to keep them from harm. I will always remember the helpless dread, knowing that I would do whatever I could, yet equally certain that whatever I could do might not be enough.

The world changed forever that day.

And for our students– though each year, more and more of them are too young to remember this day– this is the only world they have ever known. It’s a world where traveling means removing their shoes and liquids are no-nos. It’s a world in which images of explosions can dominate the evening news. It’s a world of colored-coded security assessment and random acts of terror that we never believed could reach us here.

As adults, we must find ways to make this generation of kids feel safe amid this new reality. We have to provide the pockets of security where they can still be children, where they know they are far from harm’s way.We have to provide quality time for laughter and pride, for anticipation and excitement.

We may not be able to alter the future, but we can, we must, do what is in our power to preserve the present.

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A Great Legacy, But Such a Great Loss

The world lost a great teacher yesterday.  And I lost a wonderful friend.

I was fresh out of graduate school when I first met Jane. I was brimming with the latest, greatest educational theory, but oh-so-short on instructional practice.  She voluntarily became my mentor at a time when mentors weren’t mandated.   When I was teaching English off a cart, in a different room each period,  she created a home for me in her classroom, sharing her space, sharing her experience, sharing herself.

Like the kids she taught, I loved her, at least in part, because she so clearly loved me.

She was generous and kind, cultured and smart.  If the numbers-game shows I have become a good teacher, it is largely because of what I learned from her.

She taught both the most motivated kids in our building and the most reluctant: senior honors kids and what New York State used to call “Non-Regents” kids.  She prepared them for college and she prepared them for life.  Her students became pharmacists, doctors, musicians, police officers, plumbers, mechanics, accountants, lawyers, contractors, even teachers.  Moreover, they were all forever changed for the time they spent in her classroom, learning living lessons about dignity, pride, integrity.

At the heart of all her lessons was love.  Oh, how she did love her students, all of them. She loved the boy whose hand shook because he feared the permanence of ink. She loved the girl who rewrote her college essay so many times that we both could recite it from memory.  She loved the boy who won first prize in Syracuse for performing the fastest student brake job in the vocational education competitions.  She loved them all.
She began with the premise that kids respond when they know the adults in their lives care about them.  Simple, right? Nurture them. Listen to them.  Celebrate them.  Expect them to do their best because that is what is best for them.

Other words of wisdom:

Be ready to switch gears at a moment’s notice. * The best lessons may not be in your plan book. * Read your students’ cues. * Create a safe classroom where kids will take risks. * Always laugh at yourself, but never laugh at your students.*  Do not allow the bureaucracy  of education to keep you from your real job to inspire and encourage kids.* Oh and yeah, no split infinitives, no sentences ending with prepositions and nothing is ever, ever busted; it is broken or better yet, not functional.

And it  all worked so well.  Jane didn’t need  smartboard lessons or iPads to get kids to buy into The Great Gatsby.   Sometimes she just read to them.  She made them beg John Proctor to just confess.  She made them cry for Holden Caulfield’s dead brother.   She differentiated instinctively because to her, every student was an individual with a personal history, with unique needs.  She tapped into what made each kid tick and somehow got the best of each of them because they knew she loved them.

And they loved her back.  The year that she retired,  after forty-three years of teaching, the kids asked her to be their commencement speaker.  She spoke to them as she had always talked to them: with respect and with passion.

But most of all, to my husband and to me,  Jane has been a great friend, a surrogate grandmother to our own two children.  She traveled to Ithaca and to Boston for both of their college graduations, cheering  loudest of any family member present when their names were read.    She had moved to Texas—I know, right?  What a place for the quintessential New York City gal!—and recently, we saw her when we could.  But she was happy in her new life and that was what mattered most to us.

Jane had an old school wit and could always make us laugh.  She loved Lord and Taylor and The New Yorker and Jane Austin and the New York Giants.  She liked a good chardonnay– slightly chilled– and Mamma Assunta’s  cannelloni.

She will live–and love– on in the many, many lives she has touched, but that is slight consolation for us.  There were so many things we looked forward to doing.  We just assumed that Jane would be there with us.  We are so, so sad to have lost her.

Jane had a way of finding the right words for every occasion and I know she would tell us something about this, too. I will be listening and when I hear it, I will know.