On the morning of September 11th, I was teaching my freshman art class at LaGuardia HS of Music & Art and Performing Arts. When I arrived at school, everything seemed normal — a beautiful day and a class of adorable, enthusiastic young people. A short while after I began my lesson, a woman charged into the room saying she's taking her son and his friend with her now. She was extremely agitated. When I asked her why, she seemed incredulous that I had no idea of what just happened. She blurted out that the World Trade Center was gone and “they” bombed the Pentagon or something to that effect. I ushered her out of the room, wondering if this actually happened or if she was losing her mind. At that moment several students stopped by my studio, asking me if I heard the news and saying that the principal will be making an announcement in five minutes.
I asked the two boys to take their things and leave with the mother; then I spoke to the class, saying that there will be an announcement in a few minutes, but we would continue with our lesson until that time. I was at a complete loss, shaking, terrified and trying not to upset the kids. After the announcement, I answered questions from the class, one of which brought me to tears. A young boy from India asked if the WTC was anywhere near the United Nations where his father worked. We had discussions and tried to make some sense of what was happening.
During the day students were in the halls and many of my former students came to my room to sit, talk, cry. So many were trying to call their parents on useless cell phones. Later in the day, one of my kids ran to the bathroom, sick to his stomach, frantic about his father. When students from my Humorous Illustration class came (juniors and seniors) one angrily asked if he had to make humorous art today. I said that everyone should do exactly what he/she wanted to do — talk, draw, rest, cry, pace, anything. Some worked on their art, others gathered in small discussion groups and a few sat with their heads on the desk.
Since I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan it was easy for me to remain in school until the last student was picked up by an adult. There were about a dozen teachers and administrators in the building helping out. At about 6:00 p.m., everyone was gone and we left the building. The normally bustling streets were empty, silent.
Aftermath: days following 9/11
We had faculty meetings dealing with the crisis. Three of our students lost parents. The fear was palpable: traveling to school was terrifying for students and parents; there were bomb threats and evacuations; we were told we had to recite the Pledge of Allegiance each day; every room received new American flags; I started wearing ribbons and flag pins; there was paranoia everywhere. This phase lasted about two months before things calmed down a bit.
One great tragedy was the loss of the entire unit of 11 men from the fire department across the street. I had students from my illustration class create their interpretations of the word "hero." This resulted in a spectacular book of about 30 illustrations that we presented to the Fire Department. They invited some of us to the fire house where we spent about an hour visiting, talking, sharing our thoughts. The school held a big fundraiser for the families of the lost firefighters.
For months the neighborhood looked like a war zone. There were armed National Guardsmen on Amsterdam Ave. across the street from our school; the Red Cross (which has since moved) had streams of volunteers coming and going, including me and my colleagues. Military helicopters flew overhead for many months. Our lives were never the same again.