Normal service will be resumed
It was the end of our second week of school. A week with no disasters, no bomb threats, no evacuations, no special assemblies, and no school cancellations. Just plain old school. My fourth-graders (equivalent to Year 5) got spelling books, started maths, and wrote in their journals. There was homework. I sidelined some kids for playing too roughly during recess. A couple of girls started a petition because they didn't like the way I'd arranged the desks. Plain old school, but in a brand new world.
Ten days earlier had been our first day of school. At 8am I had opened my classroom door to a bunch of energetic nine-year-olds who quickly discovered the chocolate ladybugs I'd placed on each of their desks for good luck. By mid-morning, I'd led a discussion on classroom rules, helped them stow away school supplies, and taken them on a tour to see where the all-important bathrooms and water fountains were.
Then we heard about the attack on the World Trade Center. School resumed two days later. The freshness and excitement of that first day seemed long gone; now we had to help pupils whose world, like ours, had been changed forever. We listened to the advice of our school psychologists and talked together about how we felt and how we would work with the children.
Once again I opened my classroom door and once again my students came in. After checking that their ladybugs were still on their desks, they settled on the rug for our morning meeting. We would begin with an assembly on the tragedy, I told them. After that, they could decide whether they wanted to write, do art, or respond further to it. Or not, if they'd had enough.
Some of them nodded so emphatically that I explored a bit further, cautiously. Had they talked about it with their parents? They nodded. A lot? Yes, they nodded emphatically. "We've missed so much school," said one child. "Can't we just get back to it?" "Let's see how you feel after the assembly; I'll do whatever you want," I said.
At the assembly the children were told of those affected in our school community, of those missing and those who survived. They were told stories of heroism and were reminded not to apportion blame because of religion or culture. And they were reassured that they were safe with us. Back in the classroom, my students made it clear. They'd had enough of September 11. They wanted plain old school. A bomb threat that afternoon forced us to evacuate, and school was cancelled for the rest of the week.
The following Monday, as we moved into a routine, I watched the children carefully. I wasn't going to assume anything. I barely knew them. As we went about our day, I found quiet ways to let them know I was there if they needed to talk or needed a hug. I knew how daunting our crowded, 12-storey building, filled with much older children, could be to new fourth-graders. It was easy to forget where the bathroom was and be afraid to ask; to get lost on the way to music and not know how to get back to the classroom. Such minor problems could easily be magnified in the wake of the disaster.
And indeed, that day after science, a group of girls dashed in to tell me that one of their friends was crying hysterically in the bathroom, complaining of a stomach ache. I retrieved her, hugged her, and took her to the nurse, who sent her home. Later her dad told me she was still scared.
I wondered that day about the book I had planned to read aloud, Barbara Robinson's The Best (Worst) School Year Ever, about the outrageous Herdman children, which was off-the-wall funny. My class the year before had loved it, but I wondered now if it was appropriate. On the internet I'd seen lists of books to help children cope with disaster: books about natural disasters, books about riots, wars, and other tragedies. For many, it seemed, these were helpful. But still sad and fearful, I didn't see them that way. And knowing how badly my students had wanted to get back to plain old school, I suspected they would feel the same.
And so I settled into my reading chair with the story of the Herdman children of Woodrow Wilson elementary school. I began, but worried immediately when the Herdmans were described as similar to outlaws who would have "blown up" the Wild West if they'd lived back then. Would those words be frightening? I discreetly looked at the faces around me, but they just looked intrigued.
I read on and was relieved when I got to a description of Imogene Herdman's science project (something unknown scratching in an oatmeal box) to hear a few giggles. Before long there was more laughter and by the time I stopped, halfway through the first chapter, I had relaxed. It seemed a good choice.
At dismissal that Friday, at the end of our first week of plain old school, I gave each child another chocolate ladybug. We New Yorkers need all the good luck we can get.
Monica Edinger teaches at the Dalton school, New York