I taught English in high school for thirty-one years and loved every minute I was on the job. I still have dreams of being in the classroom, teaching. I was blessed with a chance to see kids achieve far more than anyone would have expected them to. Sadly, I also saw others throw away the best chance they would ever have to be prepared for the future. Many times I shared their happiness and sometimes I shared their sadness. Twice, we even shared communal sorrow and horror as tragedy unfolded on television before our eyes.
On September 11, 2001, I was seated at my desk a few minutes before my first class started. A student came in and said, “Something has happened in New York. May I turn on the television?” I gave him the O.K. The first tower of the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane. Not long after that, as the rest of the class filed in and took seats, we watched together as the another plane smashed into the second tower.
The rest of that day we spent seeing the unfolding drama of the most devastating single act of mass murder in the history of this nation. From the first, I refused to call al qaeda’s evil act an act of war. No, it was a senseless, murderous crime against humanity by psychopaths. As we saw first one and then the other tower fall, horror compounded on horror. This heinous act murdered 2977 innocents in the towers and on the planes turned into weapons, while 411 first responders gave their lives in the line of duty that day desperately trying to save their fellow men and women.
Most of us remember exactly what we were doing and where we were when we heard news that changed the direction of our nation: the assassinations of President Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy, and September 11. For me, the young people I shared September 11 with will always be an integral part of my memory of that event. And that’s not the only such terrible time I shared with the kids I taught. There was another time…That other time was January 28, 1986.
I have always been a “space junkie,” staying up late to see Neil Armstrong land on the moon July 1969, putting up in my classroom the famous photo of the earth from moon orbit taken by Apollo 8’s Christmas voyage around the moon. After President Reagan announced plans to put a teacher in earth orbit, I told my classes that I envied that first teacher and wished it could be me.
In 1986 my students and I were excited at the thought of Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, flying in space as part of the seven-man crew of the Challenger shuttle. I scheduled our class for the library conference room where there was a large television. Expecting to be thrilled by the sight of Challenger climbing into earth orbit, we sat in silent horror as the shuttle exploded just a minute or two after liftoff.
The loss of the Challenger was a tragic event caused by faulty o-rings in solid rockets. It caused a nation to mourn the lives of seven heroes who had known the risks involved when they decided to reach for the stars. September 11 was far different from Challenger.
On September 11 thousands of innocent men and women went to work as they always do. They had no reason to think that the day would be different from any other. Some were parents awaiting the birth of their child, people in love, people who never imagined that day would be their last. Then, madmen spurred on by other madmen who used Allah as the excuse for their crimes changed the lives of more than 3,000 people and the course of an entire nation.
When I learned that Navy Seals had killed Osama bin Laden, I confess my first thought was, “Good. I hope that bastard suffered before he died.” I haven’t changed my opinion since that day.