After Sept 11, school in shock

Oct. 11, 2001, midnight | By Elizabeth Green | 19 years, 8 months ago

About five minutes after 9:38 a.m. on Sept 11, students in room 312 gathered around the windows lining the wall of their classroom. In Arlington, Virginia, a Boeing 757 had just crashed into one of the world's largest buildings. At Blair, students looked outside and saw a dark cloud of smoke rising beyond the Beltway.

Montgomery Blair High School is 14 miles from the Pentagon and 219 miles from where the World Trade Center once stood. On Sept 11, television screens brought images of these American monuments into classrooms across the school, leaving the building drowned in a quiet shock. "You go through the halls, you usually hear noise, [but this time]—silence,” describes senior Brian Drewry.

The attack on America shut down school for over a day; it rendered a Blair senior fatherless; it left at least 113 MCPS students and staff mourning dead or missing parents, spouses, cousins or other relatives; and, by many accounts, it changed the lives of students forever.

"I'm not a speechwriter”

Principal Phillip Gainous walked into the attendance office a few minutes before 9:20 that morning to talk to attendance secretary Roxanne Fus. Gainous had just been beckoned from his own office by his secretary, who told him that there was something on the television he had to see—the World Trade Center had been attacked. Now he was hurriedly preparing Blair for its response. First order of business: inform the school.

Gainous asked Fus, the voice of public address, to make a school-wide announcement about the attack. Easier said than done, according to Fus. "I'm not a speechwriter,” she says. "It was very difficult for me to formulate the right words.”

About ten minutes later, after the Pentagon was hit, Fus says she realized that keeping her composure for this next "please pardon” would prove less easy. "I knew we had students and staff whose family worked at the Pentagon,” she says. "Chills ran up my spine.”

Close to home

Junior Carlyn Vieira is one of the students whose close connection to the Pentagon tragedy unnerved Fus. After Vieira heard Fus' second announcement that Tuesday, she broke into tears and walked out of her third period class. Vieira remembers counting off the people she knew who might have been in the Pentagon as she roamed the halls: a man who lives down the street from her house, a woman with two young sons, her father. "Thinking about the specific people,” she says, "made me think about the masses that were dying.”

Even students without direct associations to the Pentagon say their horror was magnified Tuesday when they learned of the attack on the nearby building. Senior Brian Matheron, whose mother works in D.C., says that when he heard about the second attack, shock turned to fear. "I thought, ‘She's pretty close to the Pentagon; she's in D.C.,'” he recalls.

Like many Blair students, Matheron's anxiety convinced him to find an out-of-sight spot where he could use his cell phone to contact his mother. According to an informal Silver Chips poll of 100 students on the week of Sept 24, 28 percent of students tried to contact their parents from school on Sept 11. Despite school policy, 14 percent of students calling used cell phones. The others used pay phones or phones in classrooms and offices. "The pay phones were jammed,” remembers senior Andrea Perdomo. So much so, she says, that by the end of the day, "no one had 35 cents for anyone to borrow.”

Perdomo, whose father works as a foreman for a construction project near the Pentagon and whose mother teaches occasional computer classes at the building, used her red Nokia to try to reach family and friends. "Anybody who had any information on where anyone was, I tried calling,” she remembers. Perdomo says that after she pulled the phone out of her backpack in English class third period, it didn't leave her side nearly all day. In fact, as a friend drove her home from school, Perdomo held two phones to her ears—one her own and the other the driver's.

When Perdomo finally did make contact, it came without the help of any telephone line. Her mother drove up to her house about half an hour after Perdomo arrived. When she saw the familiar car pull up, Perdomo ran out of the house to her mother—yelling at her through tears for not coming home more quickly.

Senior Farrah Farley says lack of contact with the outside world left her in a similar state of disarray. Although Farley was able to contact her mother from her cell phone during school that Tuesday, she was not initially able to access any information about the attacks beyond that given in Fus' announcements. Her third period teacher, she says, refused, despite his students' requests, to turn on the class television after the two loudspeaker reports. Sitting dumb-struck as the teacher continued with lessons as usual, Farley broke down and cried. "It was upsetting,” she says.

So she left and headed straight for the media center, where Gainous had directed sets to be tuned to news coverage of the attacks. When she came back to class about 45 minutes later, her thirst for information satiated, Farley reports that, to her astonishment, her teacher was still standing in front of the class as before, lecturing.

"I feel so helpless”

After his initial shock and worry wore off, Matheron says he had a host of new emotions to deal with. Among them, the agony of inactivity. "I feel so helpless. I really can't do anything,” he says. He's too young to enlist, something he says he would do "in a second” if he could. Age also kept him from joining the rescue efforts that followed the attacks. He says that, had it been logistically possible for him to do so, he would have "easily” risked his life to save another's. But it wasn't, and he was left with nothing to do but sit passively and watch. "It's tough not to be able to do anything to vent any anger or sadness,” he says.

SGA President Alfonso Rosales has been able to vent some of his feelings through action. Immediately after learning that the World Trade Center had been attacked, the senior's first thought was of the best way to help students cope with the tragedy. Since then, the SGA raised two posters on the walls of Blair Blvd on which students were encouraged to record their reactions. The SGA is also in the process of planning a permanent memorial to Sept 11. "Students here at Blair are living history; it's something we need to leave a mark of,” Rosales says. "Not to leave something to have future generations reflect upon would be irresponsible.”

Similar to Rosales, music teacher Sara Josey wanted to give students in her digital music class an opportunity to record their sentiments. On the Thursday following the attacks, she assigned a long-term composition project to write a piece in reaction to the tragedy. "[The project] is a way to express your emotions,” Josey says. "I think music is a great way to do that.”

Junior William Campbell has already begun composing a song he calls angry but hopeful. He says the project has proved therapeutic for him not only because it offers a means of self-expression, but also because he hopes his writing it will benefit those who will eventually listen.

Senior Matt Ota also felt a strong desire to express himself after Sept 11. Especially because the terrorist attacks left his friend mourning her father's death, he says, he couldn't allow himself to be an idle bystander—he had to act. When Ota recalled a story he once heard about a Hiroshima girl dying of leukemia in the aftermath of the atomic bomb, he knew what to do.

The story goes that the girl had committed herself to folding 1,000 paper cranes in order to receive a final wish before dying because, according to Japanese legend, a free wish is granted to anyone who performs this feat. But as it became clear that the likelihood of her making so many origami cranes was slim, her friends gathered together to finish what she had started. Finally in possession of her wish, the girl asked not for her own health but for world peace.

On Sept 12, Ota and his classmates committed themselves to folding 1,000 cranes for their bereaved friend. By Sept 14, they had made roughly 1,250 tiny cranes from colorful origami paper. The cranes filled many large paper bags and wicker baskets before they were sent to Ota's friend; according to Ota, they also filled many hearts. "There was a lot of love in that room [where we folded the cranes],” he says. "You could feel it.”

Ota says his gesture extended beyond one of support to his friend. "If the world had one wish,” he explains, "that wish would probably be the same wish the girl in Japan had. I think we all need to stand back, contemplate and wish for world peace.”

Organizing the crane project has helped Ota deal with his emotions. "I still don't think I can put words to what I'm feeling. The thousand cranes say something more than I could ever say,” he declares.

Sophomore Kyle Cohen says he supports another cause: the United States military. Like many students on the first day back in school after a county-wide break, Cohen wore his patriotism on his chest.

The night after the attacks, he transformed a white t-shirt into an emblem of spirit and nationalism. Across the top, Cohen drew the white-on-blue stars and red and white stripes of the American flag. Below, amidst a dark green camouflage design, he scrawled the word "PRIDE” in black marker. That same night, he tore off two strips of fabric from a military jacket to tie around his wrists the next day. "I felt like I owed this to the people that died,” he says of his efforts.

Matheron, who also dressed in red, white and blue that day, says his patriotism has swelled since the events of Sept 11. "Before this, I detested our Republican government. But now I started to realize that no matter what their policies, their hearts are close to mine,” he says.

Gainous noticed another sentiment on display the first day back after the attacks: unity. "I'm so proud of our kids,” he says effusively. "Everybody was just looking out for each other. It was just unbelievably good.”

Perdomo was touched by a similar observation of Blazer unity. On Sept 14, the day President George W. Bush declared a national day of remembrance, she stood at the back of a crowded media center during her lunch period, moved by the ceremony on the screen before her. Particularly poignant, she says, were the moments when a speaker asked the audience to rise. "Everyone in the room stood up,” Perdomo remembers. "It made me feel proud. They really didn't have to stand up, but they all did.”

Matheron says he has reaped the benefits of school unity. The tragedy, he says, equalized the playing field at Blair, enabling him and others to cross boundaries they wouldn't otherwise cross. He points to a heated class discussion about how the country should respond to terrorism as an indicator of this equalization. In his class and around the school, students came together, he says, in shared fervor for their admittedly clashing beliefs. "This situation helps you transcend race and age and sex. You look at people as Americans,” he says.

Ota concurs, saying, "Race barriers, religious barriers—they all seemed to have dropped. Just for that day, at least.”

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Elizabeth Green. Elizabeth Green is seventeen years old. She is also happy to take on the position of editor-in-chief of Chips this, her senior, year. In fact, she has so enjoyed her forays in high school journalism that she is thinking about pursuing a career in the … More »

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