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And, of Course, We Taught



(To contact Elsa, please email me at oldjwpinkerton@gmail.com, and I’ll pass the message on.)

The day the terrorists---and I'll use that word even if Reuters won't---hijacked those planes and made their dreadful statement is a day that none of us will ever forget.  Of course, we shouldn't forget it, because if we forget the horrors of that day, we might be required to learn the lessons of September 11 again.  I've been watching the reaction of Americans at large to the events of that day, and I've also been watching the reactions closer to home.  I must confess, I'm encouraged.

Here at my high school, life went on that day.  Sure, the televisions were tuned to CNN or one of the other broadcasts including the disconcerting shot of Peter Jennings on ESPN, which had momentarily turned its attention away from sports, but those televisions were muted  and teaching continued.  We pressed on, keeping to our schedule as much as possible, celebrating our local heroes on the football field, even as the nation celebrated its newly recognized heroes,
policemen, and firemen.  We tried to have a normal day---at least, as normal a day as is possible when so many kids are losing their innocence.  Yes, John, there were still people in those buildings.  Yes, Carrie, those planes were crashed with intent and malice.  To so many of the kids, that day marked the end of something---perhaps the end of the illusions of youth.  The stock market doesn't always go up, much of the world isn't very fond of our country, and, yes, sometimes bad things happen to innocent people live on television. 

The boogie man came out from under the bed that day, and for many, he will never be banished again.

It wasn't really much easier for those of us teaching, of course.  Caught between our “catcher in the rye” instincts to protect our babies and our own desire to hide from the horror, we did the best we could.  We comforted those students when we were able, and we turned to each other for succor when the kids weren't looking.  We tried to explain the big questions--- the “why's” and the “what if's”--- and sometimes we might have been successful.  But mostly, we just talked to them to fill the void created when their illusions were shattered.  And, of course, we taught.

By sheer coincidence, my classes had recently been learning about catharsis.  I had told them of my own experiences in high school, when the doomed Challenger Seven were lost to us in a fiery blaze, also on television.  I had told them how the President had spoken to the nation that night, and I read to them Reagan's words
about those astronauts who had “slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”  I tried to relate to them the horror that the nation felt, the way our confidence was shaken.  I tried to make them understand the great psychic wound we had all felt when those souls were taken from us, and how the image of the shuttle's explosion was inked indelibly on our minds forever.  I desperately wanted them to understand the pain so that they might understand the concept of catharsis and the release that Reagan's speech had provided.  Perhaps I succeeded, perhaps not, but September 11 did a far better job of teaching than I ever could.

They all cried to me,  “This is our Challenger!”  Yes.  Of course it is.  And, oh---I'm so so sorry that you get one too---that you, too, will have an image to haunt you for all of your days.  After President Bush addressed the nation that night, many of my students were upset the next day.  They felt “cheated” by his speech.  Expecting catharsis, they got only resolve.  Others were quick to point out that there couldn't really be catharsis, not yet.  When we lost Challenger, they said, the Seven were gone in an instant.  Now, we're still digging, still hoping, and, at that time, still wondering who was responsible.  We could mourn, my students told me, but we couldn't truly experience catharsis until we had buried the last body and brought the murderers to justice.  And now, of course, we've buried the fallen and, in some measure, have found some justice, but oh, how I wish my students didn't have to see it---I'm still that Catcher, you see.

You never really know, in this profession, what sort of crisis will erupt...or when.  But we push on, and we do the best we can, and we hope that's enough.  I look at the halls of our school, and I watch our students go about their business as best they can, and I think, this time, maybe our best was enough.  We’ll never really know.