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10 years ago, where were you?

September 7, 2011

Earlier today my good friend Lorraine Dusky asked through a post, “Where were you when you first heard about the attack on the World Trade Center?” I was still teaching art at All Saints Jr. High in Rochester, and 2 days a week I was their computer teacher. I got an email from my wife just before 9:00AM that simply said, “Did you hear about the World Trade Center?”

Of course I hadn’t, and I couldn’t find out anything more as the internet had become overrun and was shut down by traffic. Eventually I got CNN to load, and saw the first tower smoking badly in a photo.

I was the first in our school to hear about the attacks. I printed off the main page of CNN’s site and sent one of my students to the office with it. He had no idea what it was until his return; then I shared it with the kids. On the top of the print out in pen I had written, “Bill, we’re going to need to talk to the kids about this ASAP!” Bill was our principal, and a really good friend of mine.

As I addressed the kids, I told them that I could only share what I knew, and that they would know as much as me or anyone else for that matter. The first thing I heard one of them say was “cool.” Apparently the look on my face was enough to show I wasn’t in the mood, and the kid immediately showed remorse. First the other kids glared at the wise-ass, and then looked at me for more information.

They each knew it was bad. Ironically, one of the kids from that class currently works with my wife. Not too long ago we bumped into each other at Panera Bread, and started talking about 9/11/2001. She reveled to me that back in 8th grade she and the others knew by the look on my face that something monumental had occurred, and that life was no longer ever going to be the same.

Our staff pulled together an impromptu assembly, and our religion teacher Sr. Karlien pulled off an amazing, and heart felt explanation of the days events. The following Friday we were to have the annual tug-of-war competition between homerooms. The thought of it made me sick to my stomach. I remember throwing up a little at the sink in my classroom. As one of two organizers for the Tug-Of-War, I repeatedly thought, “How in the Hell can I condone an act of war by leading school children against each other only three days following the worst nightmare of the new millennium?” I’ll never forget trembling at work, the onset of a panic attack, trying to teach an art class on 9/12/2001 while trying to sort this out.

I went to Sr. Karlien after lunch that day. I told her what I was feeling, and how I simply was going to refuse to be a part of that stupid tug-of-war event. I was overwhelmed with emotion, and trying far too hard not to burst into tears as I shared each of my thoughts with my long time friend and coworker. My thoughts in turn hit her like a ton of rocks as well. It made sense; “Why in the world would we ever want to have a game between our kids that glorified war?” Together after school we spoke to our principal, who was also deeply moved by my thoughts and on board with my feelings and dilemma.

Somehow, someone came up with the idea to plant a memorial garden rather than have a war between homerooms. We each took a few students that following Friday, and planted hundreds (if not thousands) of tulip bulbs on the grounds surrounding the school. Parents, students, families, and retailers each chipped in with bulb donations. The center piece of the planting was a 16 foot wide peace symbol around the flag pole by the front doors of our school.

It always gets me very emotional, mostly choked up when I recall it. Our little school turned a negative into a positive that afternoon. For the longest time after that day, I felt guilty. I couldn’t talk about it. At first I felt bad for causing that damned tug-of-war tradition to be abandoned. The kids always seemed to like it. Then I felt guilty for my part in forcing everyone else in the school to have to run around on this bulb project. Finally, I felt horrible in the end when Channel 10 News of Rochester caught wind of our memorial, and included us during the 6PM report.

I felt lower than whale shit that the local news covered our bulb planting. I was so ashamed that our little event was to become cannon fodder for the media. I hated that a media circus could sprout from this. I couldn’t live with myself out of guilt and shame. We didn’t organize this for attention, glory, reward, or for any other reason than to memorialize the victims of those horrible attacks, and to instill a strong sense of empathy into each student.

Many years later, after the discovery of my adoption in 2007, I began meeting with a therapist. My plate had certainly been full of issues over the past decade, and then some. I had choked down this story of 9/11, and my role in it. My shrink pointed out something to me. She told me that the media wasn’t there to showcase our kids nearly as much as they were serving the purpose to give viewers a tiny glimmer of hope in the face of the worst tragedy of our time.

That’s how I try to remember it, now. In 2006 or 2007 the school was shut-down and now no longer exists. The hallways and classrooms sit empty, the peace symbol bulldozed to make room for a building expansion. However, a couple of years ago I happened past the old school in Springtime and was delighted that a number of our tulips continue to sprout and bloom. Isn’t it cool that 10 years later we still have at least that much?

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