Patrick J. McAvey
A week earlier I had introduced my students to writing a journal. Give details, I told them. Let readers see and feel what you describe. One student volunteered to read aloud her first entry. She wrote of a trip taken with her family to Connecticut. On the way her father had driven through lower Manhattan to let the children see the Twin Towers up close. The girl described deserted streets that almost seemed ghostly on an early Sunday morning and she mentioned the massive walls that had seemed so small when viewed from Brooklyn. She read this to the class on the Friday before the Towers fell.
Early on September 11, school administrators decided not to tell the students about the catastrophe. Early too, parents started coming to the school to pick up their children. Now, as my third period class took their seats, I wondered how many knew. I instructed class monitors to distribute the journals. Normally, this would be the beginning of five to seven minutes of free writing, but today was different: I would chose the topic. "Somewhere at this moment there are people in great danger "“ hurting badly and in pain. I would like you to write something to give them comfort "“ a wish, a hope, a prayer."
Without a murmur, students started writing "“ quietly thinking, searching their souls as they wrote and wrote. And what they wrote was amazing: verses from The Psalms; the words of Spirituals; church prayers; exhortations, and simple words of comfort and hope. Their words tumbled on to the pages; they must have known.
In the days that followed, more students asked to read their journals aloud, and they continued to write about family and neighbors who were changed forever. One boy wrote how his mom had escaped, losing her shoes in the effort and had reached home covered in dust and soot. Embracing her, he too had gotten the grime all over him as they held each other weeping. A girl wrote about a favorite uncle who was still missing, and as the days passed there was less hope in her voice.
The author of "Family trip to Connecticut" re-read her old entry. This time classmates heard it through different ears. What followed was a discussion on primary sources in writing. The Twin Towers had existed and now they were gone. But the one student had seen them up close and had written about them. At that moment I knew that all my students held their own historical documents that one day they could show to their grandchildren.