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“We Just Went Right Back Into It”—September 11, 2001, in New York Partnership Schools

“It was a gorgeous day.”

That’s the first thing teacher Bill Moakler remembers about September 11, 2001. Not too hot, a brilliant blue sky stretching over Sacred Heart School in Highbridge, The Bronx, where he still teaches art. It was the second day of the second week of school, and he had a break. On the TV mounted in the corner of the room where he was, he saw footage of an airplane hitting the World Trade Center. And then another.

“Like everyone at school, I went into emergency mode.”

Any good teacher like Bill will tell you how crucial routines are, particularly at the beginning of the day—and how the second week of school can be a wonderful time, because those routines are already beginning to take hold, like a strong baseline in a song. With basic tasks like getting out art supplies beginning to function on a productive cadence, students’ attention can soar above distractions, into new knowledge and understandings.

But when the planes flew into the World Trade Center, during the first hour of that school day, their hijackers killed almost 3,000 people, wounded 6,000 more, caused long-term health impacts for tens of thousands, and changed millions of lives in minutes. And they shattered normal routines for most of us.

For teachers and leaders in what would become New York’s seven Partnership Schools and indeed all over the city, caring for the children before them demanded new routines on the spot. “My colleagues and I were in shock,” Bill admits. “But all I saw was professionalism. We just went right back to it,” he explains, back to the work of making students feel as calm as possible. They had to turn away from dread spreading up from lower Manhattan to Harlem and the Bronx and out across the country. They turned away from worries about their own families to rooms full of children, who needed to be cared for in the presence of evil and terrifying uncertainty.

Eileen Pagan, an administrator at Immaculate Conception School in the South Bronx then and now, remembers: “My first thought was, ‘where’s my family?’ But then we were all about helping the kids. There were parents downtown, calling frantically—many single parents—and they were relying on us to keep their kids safe.”

Bill recalls then-principal Joanne Walsh establishing quick norms. Teachers weren’t going to talk to the children about what was happening—”When students asked me what was going on, I said honestly, ‘I don’t know, but you’re going to get to go home early,’” Bill shares. And Ms. Walsh gave everyone tasks to prepare for the wave of parents on their way, many of them coming on foot up from Manhattan, across the Harlem river bridges.

In those moments, over at ICS, Eileen was struck by a singular sense of community. “The priest came over to help, the sisters—even the lunch ladies came up. There was a strong sense of unity, everyone checking on the kids and helping make sure they were OK—” and making sure in the bustle that everyone got picked up, and picked up by the right parent or auntie or abuela.

Back at Sacred Heart, Bill found himself staffing the main gate, doing much the same thing. And what he remembers from that day, more vividly even than the scenes on the news, were the looks on parents’ faces. “I almost can’t describe how powerful it was—the love and concern. They needed only one thing in the middle of all that: their kids in the safety of their arms.”

Only after all the children were safely in the arms of their families did Bill and Eileen make their ways back to their Brooklyn homes, despite shuttered and then overloaded subways.

May we take a moment today to reflect and pray—

  • in thanks for the calm, selfless efforts of all of those who cared for New York’s children on one of the city’s worst days.
  • for the loved ones our school communities lost that day. May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace—and may the memory of them continue even now, twenty years later, to be a blessing.
  • and in gratitude for every normal morning’s routines.

Our faith does not explain away the mystery of evil, for which there can be no explanation. It does invite us to experience first-hand that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1). At the front of each of our classrooms is a crucifix—a reminder suffering is real, and triumph over it is the essence of our faith. Indeed, praying before those crucifixes remains a part of the routines we return to each morning now, routines that are their own victories in the face of September 11 and other challenges.

As the character Emily in the play Our Town asks, “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?” And as playwright Thornton Wilder’s Stage Manager answers, “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.” Perhaps part of the sainthood we believe we are preparing students for involves helping them to be people who can realize the full, transcendent power of our ordinary lives as we live them. As we commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the attack—and as we prepare for this second week of another school year—may we take a moment to be aware of how precious our everyday routines are.