What follows is an excerpt from my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real...
The kids whose first day of preschool was September 11, 2001, are in college and beyond now. I doubt they have any memory of the day at all, but their parents and my colleagues and I at Cherry Preschool will never forget it.
Because it was what we call pre-visit day, when children come individually with parents or guardians to meet their teachers and see their classrooms, most of the staff had arrived early and was busy preparing. It was such a beautiful morning. Perfect for starting a new journey in a child’s life. I was director of the school, so I had been there for quite some time when a staff member rushed into the building shouting, “Turn on the TV.” It was 7:45 a.m. Chicago time—too early for kids to be arriving.
It didn’t seem possible. A plane had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. How could such a weird accident happen? Was it a small private plane that had flown off course?
The year 2001 was still a relatively innocent time. Internet news and cell phones were not that common yet, so the staff gathered in our Community Room around the small television we used for playing training videotapes. And our world changed.
By 8:03 a.m. we watched in disbelief as the second plane hit the south tower. When the third plane hit the Pentagon at 8:37 a.m., my colleagues and I were in shock. Several of us were crying. I remember thinking that this was impossible but also that our country was under attack. And then I looked at the clock and said, “Turn it off.” Kids would start arriving at 9:00 a.m. We hugged one another, and teachers went to their classrooms. My administrative colleagues and I stood by the front door to welcome the little ones on their first day of preschool.
There were a few parents too distraught to keep up the charade. While the teachers greeted their students and parents to preschool with warm smiles, we administrators dispensed hugs and diverted the adults to the office so their kids wouldn’t see their tears.
We missed the horrors that continued through the morning—the plane crashing in Pennsylvania, the bodies falling, the collapse of the towers. At lunch hour, we gathered around that small TV and watched all of these in stunned silence. But we knew more kids and families would be coming for afternoon classes, and we had to pull it together.
I’m not sure how it happened, but we decided to go outside and somehow find a way to comfort ourselves so we could go through the first day of school for yet another group of preschoolers. We held hands and then Julie’s clear voice rang out, “God Bless America.”
As we sang, we put our arms around one another. I will never forget the bond I felt with those women that morning. We had become a sisterhood mourning the death of so many and loss of our nation’s innocence. But we were also a sisterhood of resilience, strength, and purpose. Others joined us—the women who worked next door, the mail carrier, passersby who parked their cars and entered our huge group hug. We sang many songs that day, including “We Shall Overcome.” Then we dried our tears and went back to work.
Of course, nothing was ever the same. That school year, our Risk Management Guide was expanded to include plans for terrorist attacks. On September 12, I wrote this to our school community:
The beginning of this school year is one we will never forget. Thank you, Cherry families, for trusting us to care for and teach your precious children in this time of fear and anxiety. It was very hard to carry on and let go of the children, but you bravely did so for their sake. I also thank our wonderful staff for greeting the children with warm welcomes and smiles, even though we were all crying inside.
I went on to advise parents:
To think that this will not affect our children is naïve. Hopefully, you have tried to shield them from seeing the images on television or on the cover of newspapers and magazines. This will be a challenging task, however, and I have to assume that many children have seen or heard something. At the least, they may have overheard adult conversations about what happened or been told by an older sibling or playmate who has some knowledge. Finally, preschoolers are excellent barometers for picking up on their parents’ moods and feelings. Even if you carried on with a smile on your face and kept the television off or tuned to Barney all day, your child could probably sense how upset you were.
In a perfect world (how ironic), preschoolers have no need to know about such frightening events and the capacity for such violence and evil in our lives. Do your best to shelter your little ones from the media blitz and give them an extra measure of love, support, patience, and family time…As we move forward, let’s try to keep our focus here on giving our very young, innocent, and vulnerable children some measure of the normalcy, happiness, and security they deserve.
Despite my wish that it could be otherwise, as I feared, the tragedy had touched our young children. A three-year-old, pondering the events of September 11, poignantly wondered who was kicking the back of the pilot’s seat because, “If you do that, you have an accident.” A group of four-year-olds sat at the playdough table building “very strong towers.” Two sisters took the American flags from the window and one whispered to the other: “Something bad happened.” Her sister replied, “Some people died.” Through these sad days and weeks to come, the children’s sweet faces and innocent perspectives sustained us all and renewed our belief in the basic goodness of humanity.
I remember singing “God Bless America” a lot that year, but the song that really got to me, and still does, is the kiddy version of the old gospel song “This Little Light of Mine.” The song had evolved from a spiritual into a civil rights anthem before folkies like Pete Seeger and children’s musicians like Raffi and Odetta made it a children’s standard. When we sang it with the preschoolers, their favorite part was the verse that went, “Don’t let anyone (make a blowing out the candles sound) it out,” to which the kids would shout “No!” It was in that spirit that we plowed though that difficult time.
As I listen to the horrible events reported on the news day after day, I often wish just for a moment to be hugging my preschool sisters again. And, on every anniversary of September 11, I hope that someday the power of love will overcome the fear and despair that entered our lives that day.