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A History Teacher Considers What to Tell His Students


Monday, Oct. 01, 2001

It began like any other day, but after a few hours my world was turned upside down — as were those of millions of people. I had just engaged my two European history classes in a discussion of the psychological effects of the Black Plague on European society. We reviewed the characteristics of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Little did I know that as I was speaking, events were taking place that made what we were discussing so real.

As I left my class for assembly, another teacher, Paul Harrison, stopped me outside my classroom door and asked me if I had heard that the World Trade Center was destroyed. My initial response was an expletive and disbelief. Many thoughts went through my mind, but what struck me was the world had changed, and it would never be the same again.

New York Memories; New York Parents

Lower Manhattan holds a special place for me emotionally. I was a "runner" on Wall Street when I was in high school, working at 2 Broadway. As a college student, I attended Pace University, a short walk up Broadway from the Trade Center, and I also drove a taxi in that area throughout college.

In addition, I remember May 1970 when President Nixon launched an invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. That action led to a series of events resulting in the shootings at Kent State and the riots at Pace University and City Hall Park — during which construction workers who were building the Trade Center marched up Broadway beating up anyone who looked young or like a "hippie."

I also lived five minutes from the Pentagon when I taught in northern Virginia in the 1970s, and I have two close friends who are civilian employees there.

After assembly I took my Advanced Placement class to my house. There, watching television, we were exposed to the grim brutality of the attack. People had tears in their eyes and I felt at a loss as to what to say — other than that we should wait and see what unfolded before we jumped to conclusions, and to remember that if the rumor about Bin Laden and Islamic extremists was true, we should not generalize and blame the entire Islamic community.

A few minutes after I hung up the phone, my son Josh, who attends the high school where I teach, reminded me that my best friend from New Jersey worked in the World Trade Center. I immediately tried to call, but could not get through. My thoughts focused on parents who might have been on the planes that crashed, or who worked in lower Manhattan. I realized that two friends who I grew up with worked in the World Trade Center, and that numerous parents from my previous school in Chatham, New Jersey, worked in the area.

About an hour later I was able to get through to my friend's wife in Flemington, New Jersey. She told me that "Ron had a meeting and didn't go in today, but his entire office with 300 people is probably gone." I felt cold and nauseated.

Discussions That Helped Both Students and Teacher

I went outside and saw a bunch of kids milling around. I needed to talk to someone. I realize that adults are supposed to help students deal with crisis. But, in this case talking to students was as therapeutic for me, as I hope it was for them.

Later in the afternoon, we held a meeting of the football team, where we just ran around for an hour, and I returned home. I have a Ph.D. in Mid-East Diplomacy, and knowing that, people kept asking me what I thought. They wanted predictions about future American policy, and what we could expect. I answered as best I could, but I remained in a fog. The state of emptiness lasted throughout the evening chapel into the next day.

In classes the next morning, I still felt the haze that was over me. I misspoke in class, and my mind felt dull. I really do not think my classes accomplished much. In the afternoon the football team journeyed to Belmont Hill for a scrimmage and as soon as I returned, a student group — the "Skeptics" — met to discuss the attack.

About forty students engaged each other in a very thoughtful manner. They discussed what policy the United States should pursue, whether the American people were prepared to give up certain civil rights in return for greater security, what would happen if we did launch an attack, and whether this was a cycle of terrorism that was not yet over.

Following the meeting I met with an advisee and spoke to parents. By this point I was emotionally spent; I talked with my wife, Ronni, and spent a few hours watching MSNBC and CNN. Watching the constant replays of the attack and hearing the cell phone transcripts as victims called home to speak to loved ones for the last time led to tears. After turning off the television, I tried to sleep, but that night I kept waking up thinking about what transpired.

I have learned that seven parents from Chatham, New Jersey, died in the World Trade Center. I still do not know about the people I grew up with who worked in the Pentagon. I still find it difficult to concentrate on things, and I find myself reading the newspaper and watching CNN constantly.

I have discussed this with colleagues and many feel the same way. As I write this, and as the Jewish New Year holiday continues, I have a sense of foreboding. I can only hope that nothing else will occur, and some sense of normalcy will begin to return someday.

However, we must remember we have entered a new period for our country. We are in the midst of a terror-war and I am afraid that no matter what our government does, America will not be the same for a very long time.

Steve Freiberger is a history teacher at Middlesex School in Concord, MA. He has been an educator for twenty-eight years at the secondary and the college level and has earned many awards for his teaching. He completed his Ph.D at Rutgers University and is the author of Dawn Over Suez, a monograph dealing with American foreign policy in the Middle East during the 1950s. He is married and has two children.

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