September 12, 2001

Every now and then life slips into technicolor … because a particular moment is so glorious … or so frightfully tragic.

We’ve  all seen things we wish we could unsee … and we tuck that hard stuff deep down inside. And it stays safe there … until something wakes it up.

In this morning’s twilight-sleep, a radio mention of 9/11 sparked me. Flickering images beamed me back to an old moment in an old place.

I spent nearly every year of my life in a school. First as a student … then as a teacher. More than half a century if you gathered up all those years. Education is my galaxy … I’ll never slip its gravity.

I lived in lots of schools, but there was one I loved more than all the others. The one school that framed my life for all of ever. And September 11th created my most unforgettable memories of that place.

The Twin Towers were just twenty miles away. An easy commute for lots of parents. They supported their schools generously … and the district earned high marks. I taught history to twitchy freshmen and ever-cool seniors. I saw ‘em comin’ and goin’ … and I loved that full-circle stuff.

It was a sprawling campus … actually two buildings stitched together by a windowed overpass.


I lived my days in the older building that was garnished with Ionic columns, marble staircases, and colossal windows. I loved that place because it was so classic … and sincere. The way a school should be.

September 11, 2001 was a sensational late summer day

… until it wasn’t.

The day didn’t produce any reported heroics. No front-page pictures. No documentary moments. But I realized straight away how tragically embroidered that school was in that tragedy.

The second jet had just pierced the other tower … and I was headed down the stairwell … not yet conscious of the scope of it all. Until I ran right into a side of 9/11 very few saw. Or ever heard about.

The guidance office doors were flung open and the foyer was choked with frantic kids … in real panic … because reality was unfolding on televisions that were everywhere. And they were cut off from their commuting mothers and fathers. Most unsure of exactly where their parents worked.

Downed communications lines just amped up the unease. Reassuring secretaries queued up kids to use phones that didn’t actually work … but the effort quieted some fears.

Nothing juices panic like the unknown.

Then it all went technicolor. And that school morphed into something so dazzling … and what I saw stuns me still.

High schoolers are fragile sorts. Most not even 200 months old. They look grown up … but they’re far from ripe.

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Teachers, counselors, secretaries, campus monitors … even custodians … soothed those kids and stuffed calm into the confusion. Every adult morphed into an unusual hero.

And my mind was recording it all …

frame after frame … image after image …

Click. Click. Click.

The faculty gathered up kids like shepherds … herding them into classrooms. Freshmen and seniors … side-by-side … sanctuaried by teachers who suddenly seemed like clergy.

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Counselors triaged different scenes … searching for the most delicate souls … eyeballing some of us into quick action.

Campus monitors scavenged for loners. Usually speechless custodians were sudden parking lot sheriffs … chaperoning startled kids to their subterranean hide-outs … offering their special brand of matter-of-fact reassurance. Secretaries got their motherly on. And lots of classy upperclassmen came through big time.

Impromptu huddles were everywhere. Offices. Stairwells. Stoops. Bleachers. Campus slopes.

That school had morphed into an emotional MASH unit … and every child was under some angel’s wing.

It was at its noble best during a response that was unrehearsed … for a crisis that was unimagined.

And I thought my school couldn’t be more perfect.

I was wrong.

The next day … 9/12 … we clustered the entire school in our baroquey-gawdy auditorium. The majestic windows fuzzed the morning sun and we all wore a strange halo. The room was bulging … but without the usual student-body buzz.

So there we were … a mosaic of America. Folks of every color, every age, and every status. All tragically glued together in disbelieving shock … as those nearby towers still smoldered.

I don’t remember how many big shots were on the stage, but I’ll never forget two faces. One young … the other not so young.

I’m such a cynic … and I hate myself for it.

And I thought … here it comes … another yawner. A sermon-on-the-stage. From a crappy script. Delivered by a drone.

I just wanted it all to be over … so I could have my kids back … in my room. Where I could magic them and set things right.

Then a microphone whistled alive … and I heard the first words.

“If tomorrow all the things were gone
I’d worked for all my life
And I had to start again
With just my children and my wife”

Wait a second! I knew those words. That wasn’t sermon stuff.

On stage was Ilene … a seriously staid English teacher quoting … of all people … Lee Greenwood.

Not Shakespeare. Or Twain. Not Hemingway either. Lee Greenwood. As if he was a poet for the ages.

And in that moment … he was.

I’d thank my lucky stars
To be livin’ here today”

That room was pin-drop quiet. Except for one other voice. A girl. Maybe fourteen. Not long out of Peru. An exquisite, young lovely … with jet back hair mounded above her radiant face.

Katrina was standing on her back-pack … craning her neck toward the stage. Her head tilted up as though she was singing a hymn … mouthing every word along with Ilene. Out loud. In an unafraid voice.

Cause the flag still stands for freedom
And they can’t take that away”

And the audience swiveled between the two. As if it was a Wimbledon show-down.

And I’ll gladly stand up
Next to you and defend her still today”

And as that child’s voice grew more distinct, everyone was on the tip of their toes … rubbernecking … straining to pinpoint the kid in the crowd.

And Katrina had Ilene’s cadence down pat … and matched her pause for pause, word for word. A stunning duet by an unlikely duo.


Everyone was wide-eyeing each other … with open-mouth expressions … shoulder-shoving their pals … because it was all so mystical. So spontaneous. So perfect.

Cause there ain’t no doubt,
I love this land
God bless the USA”

And this cynic cried. I had no choice. And I wasn’t alone.

At that final line, the room exploded. And it thundered from stomping feet and ear-popping applause. It rolled on and on for a full minute or more … and I thought the old auditorium floor might end up in the basement.

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It was impossible not to stand straight up … and gulp some sweet, fresh air.

On September 12, 2001, Lee Greenwood became America’s poet laureate. And Ilene became the faculty matriarch. And a kid named Katrina showed an entire high school how to get up after a knock-down.

I don’t live in that school any more. And neither do those ladies. But they live forever in my mind … in technicolor … as they were in that moment … more than six thousand days ago.

So, I’ll remind you of this … as I have before …

Mind your schools. They mind your children.

Miracles happen there. Most … you never see.


Denis Ian

h/t Janey Mac

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