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The Teachable Moment of 9/11

DISCLAIMER: What I have written here fails to capture the urgency, the impact of what happened on this day, and our response to it. With apologies for my frailty, my inability to fully comprehend and communicate the consequences and the impact of this day . . .

We just marked the 20th anniversary of the horrific 9/11 attacks on our homeland. Because of the mistrust and hatred of the terrorists toward a largely unknown American target, thousands of souls perished on that fateful day. And for the rest of us? Our lives were permanently altered.

The days that followed are not marked in history. Rather, they were days filled with the mundane and arduous tasks of recovery as the nation tried to come to grips with what we were enduring. Consumed by disbelief and grief, we began a slow and fragile attempt to begin a process of healing and embracing a new normal: a process repeated in every community and every enterprise, including schools.

Like everyone old enough to remember that day, the events of this past weekend brought it all back with chilling familiarity. I had goose bumps and a heavy heart, just like I had twenty years before as my morning routine was interrupted by the ugliness that was unfolding on our televisions, gripping us all. I was reminded of the national conversation occurring at that time, focused simultaneously with a need to understand and a thirst for revenge. My memories were vivid, and my soul ached again as it was reminded of the devastating, and permanent, power of hate.

That morning was one of the few I can recall being grateful for an hour long commute. It gave me time to think and to ponder the question: How do you do school in the face of a crisis? It was my sixth day as the principal of that public middle school. Heck, it was the sixth day of me being a principal. Period. (Though I had served as their assistant principal the year prior.) Everything was so new. Now everything felt upside down. We all had a common experience that morning, adults and kids alike. Yet, I knew that all eyes would be on me. I remember so vividly being asked repeatedly by dozens of scared and perplexed young adolescents, “Mr. Johnson - are we okay?” How do you offer reassurance to pleading eyes when you don’t know the answer yourself? Stunned and shell-shocked, we were at a communal loss to know how to proceed.

How do you do school in the face of a crisis?

I certainly didn’t enter the building that morning with a carefully designed plan ready to execute. Common sense and life experience took over as I mulled over in my mind what our experience had been. I knew that what we had each seen earlier that morning would be the contents of our backpacks that we carried into school: shock, disbelief, horror, violence, blind-hatred, chaos, fear, confusion. Not knowing exactly how, relying on some naive organic process, I had clarity on what needed to be done. We needed to unpack our backpacks, acknowledge the contents, and refill them in a more balanced way. We needed to draw on the assets of our school community in an effort to blunt what had transpired only a few hours before.

The guiding pillars of our school were respect, safety, integrity and caring. We had a shared vocabulary around these ideals and they would become our arsenal to combat this evil and find our way toward healing.

How do you do school in the face of a crisis? By countering the blow of the crisis with your shared core values. If these values are well understood (whatever they may be, they don’t have to be the four mentioned) and all members of the organization are invested in them due to their opportunity for input, they become a safe landing spot to regroup and to build understanding, a safe haven from which to collectively identify the path forward. And, that would not be true of only 9/11, but it would prove to be the case as I faced many other crises as the leader of a school.

The youngest of those kids I supported on 9/11/01 would now be 31 or 32 years old. But, there are thousands of children who observed the horror of that day this past weekend, perhaps for the very first time. They may be carrying with them some of the same fears and shock that was experienced twenty years ago. I implore parents and school officials to be watchful for signs of this stress and to stand ready to intervene.

The teachable moment of 9/11 was actually a reminder. We sometimes are lulled into complacency and an unguarded sense of well-being. When something occurs that rocks our foundation, or the shared experience of an organization, we cannot allow such an occurrence to overwhelm or take control. Rather, we must tap into our undergirding values, so that they become a counter-weight, allowing them to serve as our clear beacon forward. The fear, inhumanity and horror of a situation will become more manageable when balanced with compassion, empathy and hope. Values must be celebrated and reaffirmed often. And, if the circumstances require, we must be prepared to shore them up and even reinvent them to assure, that when needed the most, they will serve us well.

Jiminy Cricket advised individuals: “Let your conscience be your guide.” If he were advising school communities, I’m confident he’d say: “Let your values be your guide.”

If Jiminy’s advise is insufficient, remember Gander, Newfoundland. The citizens of Gander welcomed, and cared for nearly 7,000 strangers from across the world who were aboard planes that were ordered to conduct emergency landings at their airport on 9/11. These strangers, “The Plane People,” received the gracious hospitality of Gander, a town of only 10,000 residents, for several days. They offered their community with grace, openness and generosity. To my mind, they represent the very personification of living values.


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