kitchen table math, the sequel: 9/11

Sunday, September 11, 2011


On 9/11, Jimmy's teacher called and told me to come pick him up. The high school was in chaos, she said; they'd had word that a former member of the staff had died in one of the planes, and teachers and kids were crying. Jimmy, then 14, was big and difficult and had attended the school for just 5 days, the first severely autistic student ever to enroll. His transition was going badly, and there was now no chance they would be making headway on that front today. 

When I got there, the teacher told me her babysitter had called: there'd been an attack on Fort Smith, up near her house. I'd never heard of Fort Smith, and I had no idea where it was, close or far. "Pick up all your kids," the teacher said. So I did.

Christopher was in the lunch room when his name was announced along with the name of our neighbor's son, Christopher's friend. There was a mix-up about who the other boy's teacher was, so Christopher told the grownups the right teacher's name, and then he was sent out to me.

I have no memory of greeting him that day. Where were we? In the school lobby? On the steps out front? Those moments are gone. My memories of 9/11 are like the movie Inception, where one of the signs the characters are dreaming is that they don't know how they got wherever it is they are now. That's 9/11 for me. In one memory I'm standing in front of the high school talking to Jimmy's teacher; in the next I'm walking with Christopher on the sidewalk at the far end of the school parking lot, the end close to my friend K's house, trying to think how to tell him about the airplanes hitting the towers and the towers falling down and realizing I should have come up with a plan about how to do this before I got here. Instead, I'm winging it.

In the next memory, I can hear myself saying, "Something bad happened," and after that there's another jump cut, and now Christopher is asking me anxiously what the country can do. I don't have a plan for handling this part of the conversation, either, so Christopher, sensing he's on his own, is trying to figure it out for himself.

We go back and forth a little bit about the things America could do, nothing I say providing the slightest reassurance or comfort, until finally he asks: "Do they have any really tall buildings?" Meaning: Do they have any really tall buildings we can knock down? His little face, ringed with curls, is tense and worried, but his voice is hopeful. He is seven, he has been in second grade for five days, and if we have lost two buildings, then it is right for them to lose two buildings, too. But the buildings have to be really tall.

"No," I say, "they don't," and he looks stricken. I am stricken, too. Something bad has happened.

Later on, that day or another day, Christopher worries that something bad will happen to the Statue of Liberty, too. What if the terrorists crash an airplane into the Statue?

I wonder what was my answer. Something with too many words, I'm sure. They probably won't try to hurt the Statue, but even if they do try the army is watching, and they won't let any planes crash into the Statue, etc., etc. My point being: the Statue is safe. Also, we are safe.

But Christopher isn't listening. He has come up with his own answer.

"If the terrorists crash into the Statue of Liberty," he says, "it will be OK. The French are so nice, they will give us another one."

It is the right answer, and he doesn't worry about the Statue again.


TerriW said...

I was living in San Francisco at the time and, due to the time difference, was still sleeping. My dad called and said, "Turn on the TV." "What station?" "Doesn't matter."

That is never a good sign.

lgm said...

I vividly remember what a beautiful,crisp,sunny morning it was. I had just done some PTA work at school, then came home to find out. Immediately called the school sec who alerted the principal...they did a fantastic job. I remember feeling I had to phrase what I was saying carefully, so as not to alarm her in front of any students. My son wasn't alarmed, despite it being the fifth day of first grade and the school being on lockdown. All busses were cancelled; all students had to be picked up in person. Children that lost a parent or had a parent stranded in the City were well taken care of - it was 10 p.m. before all students had departed. It was eerily quiet...I remember looking for fighter jets, thinking they should be scrambling out of Stewart ANG, but so, so quiet on a day with beautiful flying weather.

Redkudu said...

I was teaching middle school and playing hooky from a morning pep-rally (too noisy for me). I went to the English Department Head's office and she was listening to a radio. I got there in time to hear about the second plane. She and I were practically the only people who knew what had happened, due to the pep rally. I had to tell my students, because people were calling their kids. It took them a very long time to understand, and we weren't allowed to have the TVs on. The next day was worse, because they'd all gone home and seen the news. Big, wide eyes, very quiet, lots of questions about "why?".