Where were you when the world stopped turnin’
That September day?
Teachin’ a class full of innocent children
Or drivin’ on some cold interstate?
We remember when the world stopped turning because, for most of us, it felt as if it did. Time stood still. We remember where we were, who we were with, and how we felt. And, since then, we feel compelled to share our experience with others. I don’t think it’s about reliving tragedy, working through stages of grief or some kind of talk therapy, I think it’s more about remembering the connectedness we felt with the people we were with. We felt something together, a soul experience that goes beyond words—perhaps fear and despair, likely sadness and shock, but also a collective yearning for faith, hope, and love.
Teachin’ a class full of innocent children
As a high school teacher, I sometimes forget that my students are really children, but there was never a day when I felt that more than September 11, 2001. Together, we witnessed the second hijacked airplane fly into the World Trade Center, watching both buildings crumble to the ground. The day the world stopped turning, I was profoundly aware that I was the adult and responsible for the children in my classroom. I felt an obligation to hold it together, to remain calm, to comfort, to help them process difficult feelings and to find a reflective, intelligent way to answer their questions with as much of a knowing “I don’t know” that I could muster.
We know how the morning ended, but when my Business Management students asked to turn on the news, we had only heard that an airplane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. We had no idea that we weren’t just watching the news; we were watching a tragedy unfold, a real-life horror movie. When that 110-story building collapsed as if a rambunctious toddler had crashed into toy building blocks, time stood still. This split second, the most poignant moment of that September day, is also one of the most memorable of my twenty-year teaching career. It remains with me as a moment of Divine accompaniment and connectedness with my students.
Scanning the faces of my students, my eyes connected with Grant’s, a student sitting in the front row. I saw the disbelief in his eyes, the pain on his face, and watched him drop his head onto the desk. How long his head stayed cradled in his own hands, I don’t know, but it is a moment that has never left me. It was a moment of mutual grief for humanity, a oneness.
When we resumed classes as best we could, we went through the motions of school, adults trying to be adults—attempting to stay calm, our minds preoccupied with thoughts of our own children, our parents, our lives, our country, our future. As the details of the hijacking unfolded, I remember thinking that I could never take students on a trip again. As the sponsor of a student organization, travel with students was an important part of my duties, but it was heartbreaking to hear there had been a teacher with a class of young children on one of the planes. I felt the enormous responsibility of taking students outside the classroom.
But as the days turned into weeks and, then, months, the trauma of that day became more distant. We found ways to manage our fears and plan for potential tragedies that helped us all feel better. And despite my knee-jerk reaction resolving not to travel with students again, that following spring I took eight students to the DECA National Conference in Salt Lake City. Traveling was different from that point on, but I realized over the months that even if there were some fearful and challenging moments, I still wanted to have this special relationship with my students. Fear passes, faith, hope, and love win, and the world starts turning again. We heal.
Serendipity, eight years later
An ordinary school morning, students were researching how business and marketing plans are impacted by economic conditions and world events, such as the tragedy of 9/11. We reminisced about where we were that day, and I shared the powerful moment of making eye contact with Grant. We talked about the song, “Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning” and how we will never forget the people we were with that day.
After class, I learned that I had a visitor waiting for me in our main office, which was unusual for an ordinary school day. When I arrived in our office, Grant, from the front row of my 2001 Business Management class, was standing there.
Stunned, I said, “You are not going to believe this, but I was just talking about you! I was telling the story of how our eyes met when the towers came down.”
His response: “You are not going to believe this. I was on my way to see a client when the song, “Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning” came on the radio. I knew I needed to see you, so I turned around and drove to school.”
There really aren’t adequate words to describe how touching that moment was. But this I know, and deeply feel–that God works in beautiful ways through the events and people in our lives, even those events that are tragic. It is a divine reminder that we are held by a hand that unites us all.
In 2012, I had the opportunity to travel with eight students to New York City for a DECA conference. Visiting the 9/11 Memorial to honor Jennifer Dorsey-Howley, a graduate from our high school that died in the World Trade Center, was a must-see on our itinerary. Jennifer was able to get all of her co-workers out of Tower One, but she and her unborn child perished.
Our school’s Performing Arts Center bears her name and we honor her memory each September 11th. My students and I shared a time of silence when we found her name at the reflecting pools, located exactly where the Twin Towers once stood. As we shared our memories of that day, I told them about the special connection with Grant and his unexpected visit after hearing the song on the radio.
Now, at the 9/11 Memorial, I was having another miraculous moment with students, yet another experience that is a reminder of how essential my students are to my life and my spirit.
The experiences I have shared with students are the golden thread woven into the tapestry of my life. The responsibilities of teaching and adulting are tremendous, but the gifts are priceless, my heart is full, and as the song says,
I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love.