Fall’s first freshness: the season’s ceaseless wheel,
starlings starting south, the leaves annealing, ready to release,
yet still those columns of nothing rise from their own ruins
–From “War: III,” by C.K. Williams (published in the New Yorker, November 5, 2001)
How can I bring children into a world like this? It is September 14, 2001, and the question comes from an eighth-grade student in my social studies class. I am twenty-two years old—there is less than a decade between me and this young woman, who is already projecting herself forward. It is my first year out of college, and my second week teaching. I have a carefully prepared syllabus, but the syllabus is useless because lower Manhattan is a pile of rubble. I am supposed be teaching American history, but now we are living it. How can I bring children—I don’t have an answer for her.
More than fifteen years earlier, I was the student, with a young teacher, Ms. Segal, at the head of the class. It was January of 1986. I was in the first grade at a public school in Greenwich Village and, as in so many schools that year, the preceding months were devoted to a unit on space travel in anticipation of the Challenger mission. In addition to the trained NASA astronauts, the crew would include a social studies teacher from New Hampshire. Like so many students around the country, I was obsessed. For me, the mission had everything to do with Ms. Segal, whom I adored. I was perhaps the quietest student in my class of thirty, and painfully shy. Ms. Segal was kind, soft-spoken, and she seemed to truly see us—each one of us. I remained quiet, but I felt seen.
And she was passionate, especially when it came to our study of space. We memorized the parts of a space shuttle, pulling apart and piecing together models. We learned when the rocket boosters and fuel tank would detach from the orbiter. We studied what life would be like for the astronauts in space. And while I knew that it was not Ms. Segal but another teacher who would be on the Challenger, shooting up through the atmosphere to teach lessons from that far-off place, I always imagined it was her.
On January 28, we gathered around a television in our classroom to watch the launch. We saw the astronauts file out, waving and smiling broadly, the “teacher in space” among them. We saw the Challenger rise up on a bed of flames as expected, silhouetted against the bright blue sky. We waited for the moment when the rocket boosters would detach. Then we saw it explode. I don’t have a distinct memory of what I thought at the time, or in the days that followed when the coverage replayed—the fiery burst, the dense cloud of smoke enveloping the shuttle before separating into plumes and falling in long trails to the sea, confirming that everyone aboard was gone, disappeared. I know I was confused and then sad—not for myself, but for Ms. Segal, for whom it seemed this mission had been everything. But the sadness passed quickly. I did not ask, How can I bring children into a world like this? I was six years old. I still had my teacher. I still had the things that made my world whole. The year rolled on.
That summer, for my seventh birthday, I had a space party. My cake was topped with a plastic space shuttle. My favorite gift was an astronaut Barbie. My father built a tall rocket ship out of a cardboard tube. On its sides I drew windows and, within them, portraits of me and my family and friends, ready for liftoff. I wrote Ms. Segal a letter describing it all in detail. I can still remember blushing as I mailed it. I received no response.
Sometime toward the end of the summer we heard the news: Ms. Segal would not be returning in the fall. She had died. We were told the cause was natural—a blood clot. Her life had ended quietly, painlessly. No bright explosions. No thick plumes of smoke.
I gave up my study of space, which was inextricably bound to my former teacher, as though without the one disaster, the other might not have occurred. The manner of her death disturbed me, too. I imagined bits of debris clotting my veins. I massaged my wrists to ensure that the blood would continue coursing through them, unobstructed.
In 2001, fifteen years after her death and three months after graduating from college, I return to New York to become a teacher myself. I am still soft-spoken, still sometimes shy, but I am passionate about what I am teaching—ancient history to sixth graders and American history to eighth graders—and I love my students. I try, like Ms. Segal, to make each of them feel seen. On my way into work on September 11, I pause, as so many people do that morning, to look up at the sky, which is brilliantly blue, unusually so. And taking in that exceptional blue, I feel hopeful. I have made it through the first days of class. I have lesson plans laid out for the coming weeks. I am, slowly, figuring out my adult life.
Chapel has just ended when the faculty and staff is called suddenly to the common room where the principal tells us there has been a tragedy, the extent of which isn’t yet known. I prepare myself for an injured student, an ill parent. Not, “Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Towers.” Not, “It looks like it may be terrorism.” Not, “The city is in a state of emergency.” The words roll off me, don’t absorb, don’t make sense. I haven’t seen, yet, the images that will play and replay in the days and years ahead, when I will remember where we were, crowded into a chapel, singing Seek ye first, and already, in that moment, a plane was slicing through the first tower.
Time slows down; the hours become strange. Returning to class, I see one of my colleagues at the end of the hallway teeter and then fall, collapsing into the wall, her arms stretched out above her. She is unsure of her spouse’s fate. She is beyond the beyond.
We will dismiss at the regular time, the principal has told us. We will not discuss it with the younger students—not yet. And so inside our classrooms we keep to the syllabi, and I close the windows to muffle the sounds of fighter jets and the church’s bells tolling evenly, ominously, stubbornly calling Danger Danger Danger. And I try not to look frequently or with too much concern at the student whose mother works downtown.
Outside our classrooms we rush to computers, to phones, all of them freezing, failing, until I finally I reach my parents who tell me that they saw from their window the towers smoking and then falling and falling. And now people are running up the West Side, their bodies filling the highway. They are covered in dust. My parents’ voices break when they tell me this. My father, who I have rarely seen cry, will cry often this year. More than in all of the previous years of his life, he will tell me, as he passes the posters seeking those missing—they will never be found.
We gather before dismissal and the chaplain reads the prayer of St. Francis—Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith—before we shepherd the students out the school’s doors and into the garden where the sun is still shining, and the sky is still blue. Their parents are waiting, and I myself become a child as I find my mother and father, their faces changed by the war zone that we once called downtown. They collect me and my brother—in high school then—and for hours we crawl east and then west and then south, a twisted route around chaos, the radio crackling, Bin Laden’s speech playing again and again. Who is he? What has happened? What is wrong with me that I don’t know these things? I have just graduated from college, but I know nothing.
We show IDs to be allowed back into the Village. I go home but don’t remain there. It doesn’t feel safe. Nothing feels safe. I stay with my family. It grows dark and the streetlights in our neighborhood are dimmed, as they will be for many evenings, the electricity saved for recovery efforts at what they are now calling Ground Zero. I open my journal to write, but I have no words, I will have no words for months, the pages bare, more gaps than not. I am only capable of reporting facts. The World Trade Center is gone. Manhattan is sealed tight. I am sleeping on the floor of my brother’s room. Out the window, south of us, the city is dark. Except for the searchlights. They are digging for bodies.
The next day we watch the horror replay—the gaping holes in the towers, their collapse into themselves, the dust and ash rising into that blue, blue sky, the air clearing to reveal a void, structures and bodies vaporized—all of us now witnesses arrived too late. We learn of friends and friends of friends lost beneath the rubble. We join the crowds on the West Side Highway to cheer on the emergency responders, who cart north truck after truck of metal and ash. We found someone! a firefighter shouts as they pass, answering the question that must be on our faces. Does he do this out of pity, out of fear? I don’t know. There are no survivors.
The night before I am to return to the classroom, I am panicked. I call my high school English teacher. What can I teach these children? What do I have to share? Have them write, she says, what they are thinking, what they are feeling. And this should be no surprise to me as it was in her class that I found myself through writing, in a way that I am now incapable of.
I encourage my students to do what I cannot, and inside the classroom, we spend the days that follow writing and reading and talking. I don’t have answers for all of their questions—How can I bring children into a world like this?—I don’t have answers for most of them, but I try to moderate their fear and loss, and try to moderate my own.
The walls of the classroom are permeable. The bells of the church still ring too often, and each morning my students bring with them the chaos from the world outside, where the confirmed deaths are growing, the names of the missing becoming faces on posters in the tattered homages that spring up on walls, in parks, along chain-link fences—those who didn’t come home from work. Have you seen? Have you seen?
While inside the classroom we decode the Egyptian Book of the Dead: Anubis places a heart on a scale—if it balances with the feather of truth, the journey continues; if not, the deceased is condemned to nothingness, the heart consumed by an unnamed beast. How much should a heart weigh? my students ask. What is the weight of truth?
Outside the classroom the news stories change as the scramble for understanding subsides. Now the sober faces of anchors worn raw by shock are replaced by calls for vengeance sandwiched between neatly packaged stories of sorrow and grace.
Inside the classroom, my students know that there is nothing neat about this. They understand what they are witnessing, as we tear apart speeches laced with insults aimed at the other. The eight graders are discussing the horrors of slavery, the havoc of civil conflict, the long tail of a failed reconstruction. They understand messages built on fear. But no one listens to them as the country marches toward war. Today, I write in my journal in early October, we bombed Afghanistan.
Outside the classroom my home is a stranger. Turning onto my street and looking south I feel the ground drop beneath me every time—I turn the corner and the sidewalk falls. I feel invisible then, as if I’ve vaporized. Leaving the city doesn’t help. I take my first trip out of town and it feels like a betrayal.
Inside the classroom, the sixth graders track Odysseus’s journey through an amoral universe, one that plucks without care each member of his crew. We construct temples for gods and labyrinths for monsters, finding in the Minotaur’s cries ourselves. We look into the void.
Outside the classroom, I take the subway south to Ground Zero, to see the ruins of our new century. The windows of the buildings that remain are blown out like missing teeth, and between them, only cranes break the cavity. Around me pilgrims form a line to stare at vacancy, unbroken air. I wait until it is dark and then two beams of light emerge blue where steel strong buildings ought to be.
Inside the classroom we make our way from Greece to Rome and my sixth graders explain roads and aqueducts, the emperor Augustus, the eruption of Vesuvius and its aftermath—the homes and utensils and shapes of bodies preserved for centuries underground in Pompeii.
Outside the classroom, I stop eating. It happens slowly, unconsciously. A skipped breakfast, a missed lunch, but it isn’t long before I slide fully into it. January, February, March, and by April I am eating only one thing—an apple, a pear, a slice of cheese—before dark. What will tomorrow bring? I write in my journal. And how will I survive it?
Inside the classroom it is spring, and my students are changing. With the warm afternoons, we are outside during recess. I am still cold, in sweaters too heavy or scarves too thick, even out in the sun, where the shrieks and the laughter of the sixth graders surround me. The trauma of the fall is loosening its grip as they run and tumble and anticipate the summer.
Outside the classroom I grow thinner and thinner. First the compliments come—what is my secret? But I keep going until they shift into suspicion, and then worry. Our children are picking the flesh right off you, a parent exclaims at the May fair. But I feel good. I feel safe. Both numb and attuned. And so I don’t listen to them. I keep going.
Inside the classroom my eight graders are already half gone, their minds on the future, on the high schools they will scatter to. In this year during which I have shrunk, they have grown, and they are more young adults than children now. They are ready for it. The leaving.
Outside the classroom I spend the evening before graduation trying on outfit after outfit, my skirts sliding off me, my tops revealing too much of my too-skinny arms as I search for something to hide my protruding bones.
And then the school year is over, and I am free. But now that I am always outside the classroom, I am faced more frequently with family and friends, whose concerns grow. My classroom was a shield, I realize. I avoid them. I avoid everyone.
And then one morning, walking around the neighborhood that has become a stranger this year, but is still my home, I see my parents and my brother ahead of me, their gestures, their shapes familiar. I do not catch up to them. I am far too skinny now to pretend, and my mind is a fog. I remain silent as I watch their forms grow smaller and smaller. I feel unspeakably sad and entirely alone. I don’t call out to them then, but I do later. I am done hiding.
By the start of the next school year, I am no longer disappearing. With the help of family and friends and a doctor and a therapist, I am living and I am eating according to a careful regimen that will remain my reality for years to come, the recovery outpacing the illness. The first anniversary of 9/11 arrives, and with it all of the reminders and temptations to slide backward. But I keep eating and keep living. And I keep teaching. I teach for nine more years, a decade in total. By my last years, my students don’t have their own memories of 9/11. It is a part of history. It is in their textbooks.
It is in my past, too, though only in the way that any trauma is. It is not gone. It is a part of me, emerging in moments of stress when the high of one or two skipped meals takes hold, reminding me of the safety of that controlled existence. Or on fall mornings when the sky turns that unusual shade and I think 9/11 blue. Often the past confronts me without warning. I have a writing residency on Governors Island, and as I take the ferry out one morning and look back at southern Manhattan, my throat closes and my eyes fill. Trip after trip this happens. The Freedom Tower is there, rising up and up, the old streets are filled with new buildings, new life, but all I can see is the void.
Then the 30th anniversary of the Challenger tragedy arrives. Three decades. And still Ms. Segal remains with me, too. Because sometime after my first year teaching and my near-disappearance, I learned the truth about her life and her death. The things that I couldn’t see with my younger eyes—that she was sometimes sad, that she was a little too skinny and she grew even more so in the months after the disaster. That she was always cold. And that it was not a blood clot that killed her. She had taken her own life. After the end of the school year, she went alone to a hotel in midtown, booked a room, and killed herself.
I watch the Challenger disaster play and replay, and space and time collapse. It is 1986, and then 2001. The moment becomes a prophecy. She is in that shuttle; we are in it together. And as I hear the explosion and watch the scene enveloped in smoke, I wonder why I survived and she did not. Why, year after year, I am granted reprieve from those ruins and she is gone. And then I wonder what it would have taken to save her.
Rumpus original art by A.D. Puchalski.
Names have been changed.