On September 11, 2001, I was the principal at Barnwell Middle School in St. Charles, Missouri. I arrived at work, and my assistant principal immediately brought to my attention what was playing out with a plane that had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. In those earliest moments, nobody was sure what was going on. However, in the next thirty minutes as the events of 911 began to play out it was clear that something was terribly wrong. My thoughts immediately turned to doing what I needed to do to understand the situation, and to do whatever I needed to do to keep my students and staff safe. As it became clear that the country was under a terrorist attack, nobody in any part of the country was sure if they were safe or not. On that particular day our school was engaged in standardized testing, and we had an early release for professional development in the afternoon. Most of the students were still unaware of what was going on, and I quietly tried to relay to the staff members what was playing out across the country. Among other things, we had planned to take our students outside on a beautiful September day as a break from the grind of standardized testing. We scrapped those plans, as we did not know if it was safe to take the students outside. Eventually, we tried as best as possible to explain to the students what was going on before sending them home for the day. After the early dismissal, I talked to my staff for a brief period of time before sending them home as well, as their heads and hearts were clearly not focused on engaging in professional learning.
Twenty years later, I remember almost everything about that day. As I shared earlier, it was a beautiful September day in the St. Louis area. Our school was just about ten minutes from the airport, and thus planes were continuously flying right over our school. At one point I stepped outside and experienced the eerie silence brought about by flights being grounded across the country. There were no planes flying in and out of St. Louis, and the silence was surreal. I had a dental appointment later that afternoon and could barely get in and out of the parking lot of my dentist, because traffic was backed up for blocks as people were lined up trying to get into gas stations in the area for fear that a terrorist attack would cause an oil and gas shortage. I remember going home and watching the news coverage for hours, trying to make sense of it all.
This summer, my wife and I visited the 911 Memorial and Museum in New York City. It brought back all the memories from twenty years ago, and was a powerful reminder of the impact of that day on our country. Part of the museum presentation emphasizes how the country did rally together for a period of time in response to the events of 911, and how for a time we were united as a nation. Our current students were not alive in September 2001, and to them 911 is just another event discussed in their history books and classes. They can only get a sense of the emotions of that time by hearing our stories, and learning more about the event in their classes. But one other thing we have the ability to do is to model for our students how to rally together and work together in difficult times.
These are challenging times with COVID-19, Afghanistan, a crisis at the border, severe weather events impacting millions across the country, the challenges of living in a world dominated by social media, and a general sense of political and social discord among people. As we reflect on the events of 911 twenty years later, can we challenge ourselves to commit to working together and understanding one another better like we did for a time twenty years ago? It should not take a crisis situation for us to rally together for the betterment of our community, our state, and our country. Our actions as adults impact the future of our youth, and now more than ever they need to see us working together to solve problems. By doing this, they become the problem solvers and leaders of tomorrow.