Where were you . . . ? Teachers, alumni share memories of 9/11

In honor of the 12th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the Octagon interviewed teachers and former students about their experiences. We asked them: What is your most vivid memory of 9/11?

I remember that morning waking up and hearing my mom talking about it and not understanding what was going on. When we got to school, everyone was unhappy; some of the teachers would talk about it with us, but they wouldn’t let us watch the news. One girl said that they had bombed Seattle. You grow up in the U.S. thinking this is a First World country and that it’s pretty safe, but that’s not always the case. Things still happen. —Kelly Neukom, ’04

“My uncle was supposed to be in tower 1 of the World Trade Center that morning. He told us that when he woke up, something just told him not to go to work, so he telecommuted. The company that he worked for was completely wiped out. The entire day and part of the next day we spent trying to get ahold of him. It was terrifying not knowing.” —Kellie Whited, high-school teacher

“I was working in the Amherst College admissions office. I had been in meetings all morning long, and when I left the room, the receptionist yelled, “We are under attack!” I thought she was talking about the college at first. After that, we went across the street to the gym, which had TV’s, and everyone was glued to the screens. That night I remember having dinner with all of my friends; all of us were looking for some sense of community and togetherness. One of my college classmates was in the towers. Being on the East Coast, and at Amherst, so many people had friends and families in New York. That first day, there were so many things unknown. Communication was down, and people didn’t know whether or not their loved ones were okay.” —Chris Kuipers, middle-school teacher

“I was taking my qualifying exams for my Ph.D. at Temple University in Philadelphia and I was eight months pregnant, and my sister was supposed to be flying from Orange County to Philadelphia that day. While I was sitting taking my test, I could hear someone on his or her phone chattering that something was wrong. On my way back home I was in the subway, and our train got stopped at the 30th Street Station for 20 minutes because of a bomb threat. Because of just how nervous and stressful that time was, I had contractions, and they had to give me medicine so I wouldn’t have a premature baby.” —Patricia Portillo, high-school teacher

“Dan and I were making our lunches when we got a call from a friend in England saying that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. Our friend tended to exaggerate and Dan said if it was really that big, it would be on every channel and every station we tuned in to. Sure enough, it was wall-to-wall coverage on every channel. My room at school at the time was one of the few that had a television, and I remember having it on the whole day and people would come in during their free periods and watch. People just came in and stared at the TV for 40 minutes, silently. I can’t think of any event in which the students were as appalled. And then we got word that the president was in an undisclosed location and being hidden. It was extraordinary.” —Patricia Fels, high-school teacher

“I first learned about it when I was on my way to SCDS from the Uni-lot.  It was surreal, and I didn’t think it could really be happening.  For the little ones, it was a news blackout: we didn’t tell them it had happened.  It was finding the balance between a normal school day in the first grade when the children were in the room and then, when the children left the room, trying to gather as much information as possible.  Some parents didn’t want to tell their children at all.  We respected their wishes.  We took our lead from the children.  If they mentioned the event, we would pull them aside and talk to them, but otherwise, we didn’t say anything. As a faculty, we decided that in the younger grades we would not discuss the event in a group situation. We only spoke one-on-one with the children who expressed concern.  For me, personally, one of the parents from the school I taught at in Los Angeles was on the first plane that went into the World Trade Center.  She and her mother had dropped her twins off at Rhode Island School of Design for their freshman year and then boarded a plane in Boston headed to Los Angeles.  The image of their plane crashing into the World Trade Center still haunts me today.” —Robin Kren, lower-school teacher

“I remember waking up in the morning, and several things were wrong; first our house being eerily quiet. Secondly, the television was on, and the TV was usually never on during the mornings. It didn’t feel real. The impact of what was happening didn’t hit me until I got to school. There was confusion in the faculty about what to say and not to say. Some teachers had televisions in their rooms and were watching the news. Most of the teachers addressed what had happened at the beginning of class; expressing their understanding of any students that needed to leave the room and call family or friends on the East Coast to make sure they were okay. They also acknowledged the loss and the scope of the tragedy but said that we shouldn’t let such awful people disrupt our daily life. The teachers would give us occasional updates on what was happening, but the news that was coming in was disjointed. I remember some kids were worried that Los Angeles or San Francisco was next. Some people also said we should start stockpiling things, which in hindsight sounds ridiculous, but after what had happened earlier in the day, we thought anything was possible.”—Alexis Covey, ‘02  

“The one that always comes to my mind is seeing one of the British Military Bands playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in front of Buckingham Palace. It was particularly moving to hear this fully uniformed band playing our national anthem. I had a doctor’s appointment that morning at Kaiser before school, so I was sitting in an empty waiting room and I saw the second building go down. I sat there by myself, tears streaming down my face.” —Sue Nellis, head of high school

(Photo courtesy of 9/11 Photos of Creative Commons)

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