UmeNow

Remembering Nine Eleven in 2013 -- A Former Teacher and Her Students

September 11, 2013 --

It's not possible for me to feel anything but deep sadness on this day. It always takes me back to what I was doing on the morning of 9/11 when the most horrible of events struck, unexpectedly.

I was inside a high school classroom in south Florida. Students were happily rushing from one class to another. The late bell had rung when one of my students appeared panicked and agitated. At first, I could not understand what he was saying to me. Some students were still rushing in concerned they would receive a detention for being late. My first inclination was to reprimand the agitated student and direct him to his next class. He had always been a high maintenance student who demanded attention and was generally well known for being disruptive. But the horrified look on his face compelled me to pay closer attention. "Turn on the tv now," he pleaded. "A plane has crashed in NYC."

Seated before me was a room full of journalism students, a mixed group of ninth and tenth graders, a few even from eleventh grade. Soon, the entire classroom was urging me to turn on the television, not because they knew what was happening. They had no clue. But they did like the idea of starting the class by turning on the television, standard equipment in all classrooms.

Out of curiosity to see what had so alarmed the distressed student, I switched on the television.

I did not have to search for channels.

There it was: one of the twin towers at the World Trade Center was on fire with smoke spilling out from somewhere near the top.

I could hear what the broadcasters were saying. But what they said was confusing. Seemed like they did not know what had caused the fire.

I remember saying out loud: "This is not funny."

At that moment, it appeared to me that someone was playing a spoof -- some kind of "B" movie depicting the burning of the World Trade Center.

At that moment, my brain never considered that what I was watching was real.

The students and I watched in silence.

I would later come to understand that we were all in a state of shock -- total disbelief and confusion.

We remained in this state when a few minutes later, I along with my students, watched as the second airliner crashed into the second tower.

Now I was really annoyed. Again I said out loud: "This really is not funny."

Meanwhile, some of my students started to panic. They cried out demanding an explanation from me. I looked at them. They looked at me. I looked at the television, and I listened -- trying to understand what this was that was being broadcasted.

My mind was still telling me that this was not real.

The next thing I remember is the announcement that the Pentagon had also been struck by an airliner.

At that moment, in a instant, I knew. I turned to my students and said, "We are under attack."

It was also at that moment that I knew that I had a room full of children who were afraid -- more were crying, some trembling, others asking me if they could just leave and go home.

I had to take control of the situation. I had to reassure them.

The television remained on, while I convinced them that our high school was not a target and that we were safe.

I helped them see that this was a terrorist attack aimed at our symbols of capital wealth and government intelligence.

They reminded me that in my last lecture I had spoken to them about terrorism and how someday we may be attacked by terrorists using weapons of mass destruction. During that lecture, my students had asked me why I thought this might happened. I told them that I watch a lot of CSPAN and learn from experts who follow world events.

They had looked at me skeptically during that last lesson. Now I had seated before me the same students who had attended that lecture less the 48 hours earlier. They tearfully said to me, as we watched both towers crumble, "Ms. Castillo-Bach, you were right."

How I wish I had been wrong.

My students took turns that morning calling parents from the phone inside the classroom. Many calls from parents were routed to the classroom. The whole time, my focus was on the students - convince them that they are safe, their parents at work are face, and our government and military would soon take care of those who attacked us.

I did not cry on that day. But I have cried on this day every year since.

And when I go to ground zero, as I have done many times, the grief I experience is unlike anything that I have ever known -- and I have known grief.

For me, today is a day to remember and reflect.

I am offended when people use the world "celebrate" in connection with 9/11. How confused is that? Celebration is about happiness, joy, fun, good memories.

Today is about going to a place deep inside -- and remember.