Editor’s Note: The essay below was written in 2001 and appears in the self-published book, Through Our Eyes: A Tapestry of Words and Images in Response to September 11. Printed and distributed in 2002, the book was the result of an independent, volunteer documentary project organized by a journalist and several friends. The author’s bio was written in 2002 and has not been updated.
Beth Michelle Smith is hilarious. And not only can you count on this “funny girl with a twisted sense of humor” to make you laugh, but you can also count on her to help you at the drop of a hat. Beth was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, but spent her childhood in Chandler, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. Today, she lives in Bloomington, Indiana, with her equally clever husband, Jeff, and their kitty cat, two chocolate labs and Indonesian White tree frog (and they’ve got a baby girl on the way!). Beth is a sixth-grade science/health/math teacher at an elementary school. Her free time is spent hiking, reading, traveling, watching movies and volunteering. When it comes to her expeditions, Beth says, “North American tour is complete; ready for the remaining six continents!” When terrorists struck America on Sept. 11, Beth was preparing to teach her class. She wrote her essay about a week later.
Upon rolling up to the school’s circular drive, my husband slowed the car to let me out of our tattered Jetta. With hands full of half-graded papers, coffee to go, and a daypack, I clumsily exited the car. Just as I was about to shut the car door with my free pinky, Jeff said, “Did you hear that?”
“No, what?” I said with little interest in the never-too-exciting local news.
“Apparently a plane hit the World Trade Center,” Jeff stated, half-questioning his own comment.
“That’s weird … hmm. Have a nice day,” I replied, “Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
And with that, Jeff drove off. I’m sure his curiosity got the best of him, while mine withered within seconds. I walked into the school’s front doors, went to my mailbox, cleaned out the various Scholastic order forms, meeting schedules, and professional development opportunity fliers. As I breezed by a few tenured teachers in the copy room I casually stated, “It seems as if a plane hit the World Trade Center.” “Really?” said Chris, a third-grade teacher I really don’t know well. “That’s strange.” She didn’t seem shocked, and neither did I. We walked away from one another. I went to my classroom and she probably went to hers. We are busy women and don’t have time for the news.
I got back to my room, and as I unlocked my door, I was surprised to hear my phone ringing. I’m a new teacher to this school, and I haven’t had many phone calls. Upon answering it, I heard my husband’s voice.
“Yeah, hi?! What’s going on?” I replied.
“You need to get to a TV!” he insisted.
“You just have to. I can’t believe what’s going on. Another plane has crashed into the other twin tower. It’s terrible. They think it’s an attack.”
Jeff’s voice had never been so serious. So concerned. “OK, I have to go. I’ll call you later.”
Within 60 seconds I was glued to a television. I had only minutes before school started and I’d have what turned out to be 27 curious, frightened, interested, shocked and energized sixth-graders. Those children bombarded me with notions, questions, comments and requests I couldn’t even begin to process. For the next six hours my job would be complicated by the needs of 27 other humans. I just needed to take care of my own sense of disbelief, fear and discomfort. There was no escaping. I could only face them.
Fortunately I was able to drop them off at gym first thing in the morning. After dropping the students off, I was back in the office, glued to the TV. Several other staff members stood wet-eyed and salty-cheeked around a 19-inch screen on a rolling cart with bad reception. We only had the very few clips of the second plane crashing. They showed it over and over again, until the newest and latest installment of the horror surfaced – “The Pentagon incident.”
I cried like a silent child behind plated glass in an asylum. No one heard me cry. Everyone else cried also. It would do me no good to cry anymore. I had to teach class. I escaped to my classroom for the rest of my preparation period. I was numb.
For the rest of the day, I think I was in a mild form of shock. I certainly was in a major form of disbelief. So many questions raced through my mind. I had a secret love affair with my radio when the kids were out for lunch. It was a bi-polar relationship, though. I’d turn it on the very second I could … listening for new tidbits to try and make sense of this strange story that never left the airways. Then I’d turn it off with a quick hand, sick with destructive words and unable to process any more. As soon as I’d stop weeping, I’d be back at it … listening for more information. Finally, I vowed to turn off my radio and try to eat my lunch. I crept next door to see what Dean, my fellow sixth-grade teacher, had heard. He said something to the effect of another plane crashing 80 miles out of Pittsburgh. I just shut the door and left his room, unable to hear anymore.
I spoke to my students in depth about what had happened. I asked them to please watch the news for homework and discuss with their parents the facts of the incident. I told them I was scared. I told them I was confused. My voice quivered and I just stopped talking. There wasn’t a thing I could say to change what had happened and make it better. Not even their parents could kiss it and make it better. I witnessed 27 young lives lose a lot of innocence that day.
A big job lay ahead of us. We had to be productive, not idle. These students wanted to do something. They begged me to let them do something! We brainstormed ways to productively spend our time. In the days to come we would do little activities to talk about our feelings, own our feelings, release our feelings. Today we organized a change collection. On Friday we’ll send the money collected to the Red Cross. We also wrote letters to the NYPD, NYC Fire Department and to President Bush, thanking them for their efforts to make our country a better place.
I just hope as a citizen and a teacher I am doing my part. I want to be productive and positive. I am glued to CNN nightly and have cried more in the last six days than I ever have collectively in my entire life. However, I wake up new each day and try to be a model for those kids. And once again at the day’s end, I am wiped out and come home to more sad stories. Stories worse than anything conjured up in any imagination anywhere! Stories about racism, pregnant mother’s whose husbands died in a plane crash, trapped people in rubble, terrorism, chemical warfare, threats of more terrorism, unsafe airports, businesses collapsed, priests deceased, etc. etc. etc. etc.
It never ends … and I’m afraid this is only the beginning.