Skip to main content
Full Menu

Maura Mulligan

As a teacher of English as a second language, I listened as teenagers asked questions about the tragedy as it unfolded before them — and I struggled to provide them with answers. This is my story.

English Language Learners Trying To Make Sense Of It All

On Tuesday, the present/past tense chart of the irregular verbs for my English language learners lay unfinished under a table where it fell. When I found it two days later, it was a terrible reminder that time is something we cannot be sure of.

On Thursday, I went about in a daze as I tried to answer questions from teens in a language still not familiar to them.

“Why they kill all the peoples, Ms?”

“America gonna catch them and shoot them?”

I said I did not know the answers to their questions. I said we would have a ceremony the following day, Friday — to send positive thoughts to families who lost loved ones. Maybe our positive thoughts would help firefighters and other workers who are trying to find lost people, I suggested.

“What’s positive thoughts, Ms?”

“Good wishes,” I said knowing they would understand that concept. A moment of silence with students, who were already shushed by insensitive peers, and indeed sometimes by teachers unaware of the process of second language learning, would not be productive. They made their “Good wishes” cards and we displayed them on the bulletin board.

“I wish the people not ded.”

“I wish the smoke go away.”

“I wish the police kech the bad guys.”

“I wish my father come back.”

I attempted to explain the meaning of the word “united” as I used the American flag and a globe to tell them that people all over the world were going to light candles that very night. I showed them the candle that I was going to bring to a ceremony that evening. I tried to teach the words of “The Star Spangled Banner.”I did too much in one lesson, and felt sure they could tell, on some level understand, that I was not confident about anything I said or did that day.

Later, I went with friends to the candlelight ceremony at Union Square Park, to remember the dead. A large crowd circled a cement stage, writing messages with chalk that was provided. Many, too dazed to focus on putting their thoughts into words, wandered around reading sentiments written by others. Flowers and photos were placed at various stations where lighted candles created a shrine. The word, “freedom” was visible in many languages and I added “saoirse” (Gaelic for freedom) to that list. “Peace” was also prominent, and to this I added the word “siocháin.”

A small girl ran to find pink chalk. She knelt and wrote: “I love the …” After the three dots, she drew a picture of the twin towers. I talked with a young Asian woman beside me. In broken English she told me that her sister narrowly escaped from Tower One:

“She too scared to come out of apartment now. She just want to stay in bed. She think she still running.”

A group tried to cheer themselves up by singing “New York, New York” and chanting anti-war slogans. I was somewhat dazed and was only able to join in when a choir started to sing “Someone’s crying, Lord, Kumbaya.”

Two dancers moved through the crowd on stilts. The two, exactly the same size, wore black leotards and facemasks. The windows painted on their thin bodies and the grace with which they fell off the stilts, brought an audible sigh from the crowd. I found it disturbing and wanted to leave.

On the New Jersey side of the Hudson, where I live, I watched the smoke rise out of a large gaping cavity. Like an ugly gray monster it sent its stench across the river. And like my verb chart that stayed on the floor for days, the view was a reminder that life, as we knew it would never be the same.