It was one of those thankfully rare moments that engrain in the minds of those who experience them the memory of the exact place and time they heard the news.
On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I got in my car at about 8.00 to drive to the central office of San Antonio’s Northeast Independent School District, where I would be working on curriculum planning with other members of my 9th-grade team. It was my first year teaching at Lee High School and, truth be told, I was sort of glad not to be in my classroom. I hadn’t really bonded with my 9th graders yet, and I was feeling kind of bad about it. But the prospect of spending a day planning interdisciplinary curriculum with like-minded teachers seemed welcome.
As I drove down Shook Avenue to turn left onto Hildebrand, NPR was playing a story about President George W. Bush’s visit to a school in Florida. As I recall, it wasn’t “news,” exactly; it was a bit more of a human-interest story combined with a general political story. Suddenly, in the middle of the story, the NPR anchor broke in—that was the first sign to me that something serious was up, because I had never heard them interrupt any story—and announced that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. Even though I knew that the interruption was a bad sign, I still thought it couldn’t possibly be that big a thing. I thought there must have been something wrong with the first plane, or with the navigation systems, and that the second one had to be a little plane, a Cessna flying around nearby, and the pilot hadn’t been able to see for all the smoke from the first crash. I didn’t know that much about New York or the World Trade Center, so I didn’t really have a picture in my mind of what could be happening.
I went into the building and found my fellow teachers in a meeting room. I wasn’t sure they would have heard about it, especially since I was still convinced that it couldn’t be that big a thing. They had all heard. That was all they were talking about. When I saw that everyone else was shaken up, it started to sink in. We still didn’t know what was happening, of course, but it was clear that this wasn’t an accident. I think we decided to try to get to work.
We talked for about half and hour, maybe; I imagine we were just checking in. Then someone walked into the room we were working in and announced that another plane had just hit the Pentagon. My first thought was that whoever was doing this was going to crash a plane into a building every hour until they got what they wanted. It was a scary feeling to realize that someone—we didn’t know who—was trying to kill us, and we didn’t know where or when they would try again. Another teacher started cursing about George W. Bush, and how this was all his fault because he makes so many enemies. I thought that was a pretty terrible reaction. I reminded myself that people deal with stress in different ways, but for me anger makes a stressful situation even worse. And I thought it was pretty unreasonable to blame our own president—even a president who wasn’t all that popular with many people and who sometimes committed some ridiculous gaffes—for an attack on our own country. It later turned out that someone should have known that the attacks were being planned, but I still think it’s outrageous to say that it’s George W. Bush’s fault that someone planned them in the first place.
The rest of the events of the day are not completely clear in my mind. At some point, we went into someone’s office and watched news footage—maybe CNN—on their computer. We saw at least one of the towers fall, but I’m not sure whether we saw it live, or whether we had already heard about it. I sort of think it was probably live, now that I think about it. They weren’t doing much replaying that day, because the news was still happening. They wouldn’t have broken away from live coverage to replay the awful moments when the towers fell, partially because of the utter shock of the event (it was too raw to replay so soon afterwards), and partially because there was still so much chaos. But I might be wrong about all that.
At some other point, we heard that another plane had crashed into a field in Pennsylvania; we also heard some things that later turned out not to be true. I don’t remember exactly what they were, since reality was so much more significant that my memory didn’t make much space for the rumors of the day. The only one I do remember was some people saying that “they” were trying to kill George W. Bush with the fourth plane. When I heard that, I thought, Well, duh, that’s obviously not true—George Bush was in Florida this morning. Even I knew that, and I’m not even trying!
We heard that all the planes in the country were grounded. My department chair, Kelly Taylor, was on a plane that day, flying to the Washington, D.C., area to pick up a car from a relative so she could drive it back to San Antonio for her daughter. Later, we found out that they had to make an unplanned landing in Little Rock. Of course, the people on the plane didn’t know what was happening until they got off. A few days later, Kelly managed to rent a car and drive to D.C., since planes still weren’t flying. I remember thinking that this was huge. Every plane in the country was on the ground. No planes were allowed to fly anywhere in U.S. airspace. Somehow, that really added to the gravity of the events—it was a sign that things were never going to be the same. At the time, we didn’t know how long planes would be grounded. Given how shaken up we all were, we probably wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that planes would never be allowed to fly again. Obviously that didn’t happen, but I think it’s an example of how our worldview was shattered.
At lunchtime, we decided to go eat at a place called the 410 Diner. I had never been there before, and I haven’t been back since, although it seemed like a cool place. I remember the waitress asking, “How are ya’ll doing?” and Steve Magadance, a teacher whose birthday happened to be that day, saying, “Oh, fine; about as well as we can be.” I tried to call Karen to make sure everyone there was okay, since they lived near D.C. No calls could get through because everyone in the country was calling D.C. I didn’t worry too much, because I knew there would be no reason for anyone in the family to be near the Pentagon.
At the end of the day, I went to my school to drop something off. One of my students was still there and she asked me, “Miss, did you hear what happened?” It seemed like a really bizarre question—how could I not have heard what happened? Then I got called on the intercom to come down to the main office and talk to the principal. They had just gotten a letter saying that the school would have to notify the parents of all my students that I wasn’t certified to teach them. My principal was freaking out. I couldn’t believe that they were going to talk to me about that now. I reminded them that I hadn’t taken the Composite Social Studies certification exam yet, because I wasn’t allowed to until after I had taken the Government certification exam; and that I had told them all of this when they interviewed me. Finally the assistant principal said okay, whatever, we’ll deal with it.
I eventually went home. I got the TV out of my closet (that’s where I stored it, because I didn’t want it to be the center of my living room, and I didn’t want it to be in a place where I could easily watch it all the time) and watched it for a while. There were no ads on any station. There were no regular TV shows. It was just news. They showed hundreds of thousands of people walking home across the Brooklyn Bridge, and people covered in white dust, and people putting up pictures of family members that they couldn’t find. They showed firefighters trying to do anything they could, which wasn’t much. They encouraged people to give blood, saying it could be shipped to New York to help all the injured people; and they showed people all over the country lining up because giving blood was the only thing they could do. It didn’t help much, since it turned out there weren’t many injured people. Members of Congress went out on the Capitol steps for a press conference that was clearly not planned or organized. They spontaneously started singing “God Bless America,” and many of them were crying. I remember the sound of that song—it didn’t sound that great, because they hadn’t set up microphones for that kind of thing, and they hadn’t rehearsed, and they didn’t all start at the same time, and I’m sure some of them were off key. But it was a beautiful song because of all that. They sounded scared, overwhelmed, and resolute. That song still makes me cry a little because when I hear it, I hear those people on the steps of the Capitol Building.
What strikes me about the news that day is that it really was news. It wasn’t cooked up by the news broadcasters, trying to convince people that there was news and they needed to watch it. I think it was probably the sincerest news broadcasting there has ever been. I’ve never had the impression that reporters were out there just trying to get the scoop that day—they stopped people on the street and talked to them because they, the reporters, were in shock just like the rest of us, and they, the reporters, really wanted to hear these people just like the rest of us.
I called a few friends and my visiting teachees to make sure they were okay. I got a hold of my family. I finally went to sleep, probably around midnight. At 3.00, I woke up to the sound of planes overhead. It was terrifying until I realized they were military planes from the air-force bases in San Antonio. I went to school on Wednesday and had my students write me a letter about what happened and how they felt. We talked about who it was and why it was, and what terrorism means and what terrorists want. Friday is football day in Texas. There was talk of canceling the games, but everyone knew we had to go on with our lives and not be scared. So I went to Lee versus Alamo Heights, an away game. Partway through the game, a plane flew by. The ban had been lifted. People stared at it and commented on how strange it was to see a plane.
This was part of the article “Where we were” on pages 14–17 of Issue 4 | October 2011.