08/10/2011

Heroes All

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In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, then-United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten visited several schools housing students and staff displaced from their lower Manhattan schools by the terrorist attack. During those visits, teachers and other educators shared with Weingarten their experiences of that tragic day as they shepherded thousands of students to safety. Weingarten, for her part, assured them that the UFT would do everything it could to help bring back a sense of normalcy to their schools and their lives. Later that month, Weingarten, who now is president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote a column in New York Teacher in which she shared her Sept. 11 experiences and praised UFT members for the courage and resourcefulness they exhibited that day.

That column, which appeared in the Sept. 26, 2001, issue of New York Teacher, is reprinted here.

Heroes All: The Untold Story

by Randi Weingarten, President, United Federation of Teachers

Realization of what was happening took several minutes. Cognizance of the magnitude of the death and destruction took hours. Understanding? Who knows? Maybe never. But move on we must.

# # #

It was Primary Day. I was leafleting near Brooklyn Borough Hall with Alan Hevesi. Rush hour was nearly over. Suddenly, we heard an explosion. Smoke rose on the eastern horizon. We stopped campaigning and headed for the promenade. There the sight of one of the towers burning stopped us cold. Transfixed with disbelief, we watched a plane approach and then penetrate the second tower. A communal gasp, some screams, then silent horror swept through the growing crowd.

The rest of the day – I’ve never spent so much time at 110 Livingston – was spent in a blur of meetings, phone calls and huddles, gathering information on the state of the schools, making tough decisions on how to proceed, anxiously locating family and friends, sighing each time someone was safe, and crying each time someone was not.

As the towers collapsed, the mayor understandably wanted to evacuate all the schools, send every child home immediately. Chancellor Levy was ready to go along, but I strongly urged them to reconsider. How could we send the children into the streets, into the unknown? What if they couldn’t get home? What if no one was home? What if there were more attacks? There were all kinds of ‘what ifs,’ some too terrible to think about. Wouldn’t they be safer in the schools?

Convinced, the chancellor ordered the schools locked down. Together we developed a dismissal plan.

photo by Miller Photography

Two days after Sept. 11, AFT president Randi Weingarten, then UFT local president, visited New York City schools with UFT leaders to share the tragedy with students and staff. Photo by Miller Photography.

 

As evening approached, we needed to make a decision about the next day. Again understandably, the mayor’s office pressed for a return to normalcy as soon as possible. The schools should open, they argued. But again I differed. And again the mayor listened. Families would be able to spend Wednesday together, absorbing what had happened, explaining it to the children, helping them feel safe in this new, scary world.

Tuesday night, walking in my Brooklyn neighborhood, hearing the sirens and smelling the smoke, I gave thanks that there had been not a single report of a child hurt or missing in the day’s chaos. I knew our members were also safe, though three supervisors of school safety were injured. But I worried about you, especially those in lower Manhattan and those whose loved ones were there. I could only imagine what you had gone through. It was not until later that I learned of the miracles you had wrought, the extent of your professionalism, your dedication, your ingenuity and, yes, your heroism.

Across the city, teachers calmed nervous parents, reassured frightened youngsters (some of whom had witnessed the attacks and their aftermath from their classroom windows), stayed late until children could be picked up and even accompanied them home when no one showed up. Some teachers took children to their own homes to stay until family members could retrieve them. Across the city, hundreds of high school students found themselves stranded, unable to reach home. Gymnasiums became temporary shelters, and teachers stayed the night, sleeping in shifts. Many of these actions are described elsewhere in this paper.

But the most harrowing stories are those of the teachers and other educators in the nine downtown Manhattan schools that had to evacuate because of their proximity to the World Trade Center and the immediate and life-threatening danger from fireballs and falling debris. Two high schools exited their buildings just as the second tower collapsed. One teacher led his charges into a parking garage for protection from the tumbling girders. Others herded teen-agers onto ferries to get away from the choking smoke, and one even hailed a tugboat! Another, in true teacher fashion, had been urging his students to walk, not run, as they calmly left their school. But he abandoned all his training when he saw the ball of smoke and airborne glass rolling toward them down the street. “Run,” he shouted. “Run as fast as you can!” And they did.

For the elementary school teachers, and paras, however, such instructions weren’t an option. Amid the chaos and panic of fleeing adults in the streets, they each had to shepherd dozens of students to safety.

You wonder why I call it a miracle? Eight thousand children, some as young as 4, some with handicaps, most known to their teachers only a few days, were moved through conditions comparable only to the height of war, without a single child hurt or lost! With children on their shoulders and clinging to their hands and clothing, they walked, ran, stumbled, stopped, counted, consoled, encouraged, and ran again, two miles and more to shelter in schools further north. Those educators, many of them in their first year – days, I should say – of teaching, swallowed their own terror to protect their vulnerable charges. In fact, several told me, independently, the same motivation: “The only thing that kept me from hysteria was knowing that the kids needed me to be calm.”

In the days following the reopening of school, I visited with the staffs of those schools, all in buildings other than their own. I can’t tell you how many times my eyes welled up as, cathartically, they shared their experiences with me and their school colleagues. Nevertheless, despite the trauma they had experienced, they hugged and laughed, even at their own silliness in the midst of the crisis. Teachers at one school, after having entertained their classes in the cafeteria for what seemed like hours until the decision was made to leave, stopped to clean up before herding the children to the door. An occupational therapist told of her guilt and anxiety after she’d been separated from her co-workers in the blinding smoke because she had the student attendance list! And one woman recalled her excessive concern over a roach in the teachers’ room while a cataclysm roared outside.

What stands out most is the praise and gratitude they had for one another. Universally, they told stories of educators and other school personnel standing at the door until everybody was out; educators who, where other leadership was lacking, designed evacuation plans and escape routes; educators who went back into endangered buildings searching for children possibly left behind.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to the courage and resourcefulness of UFT members came from the parents’ association president at PS 234. He said that as a Marine commander in Vietnam in 1968 he’d been in “some very tight situations. But,” he said, “I’ve never seen anyone perform the way you did. You guys were unbelievable, the best.”

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I wish more people could hear the stories I’ve heard in the last few days. New Yorkers and Americans everywhere, including me, have been singing the praises of the brave firefighters, police and other rescue workers who saved lives, and perished, on that awful day. Those men and women deserve all the accolades we can give them. And so do all the construction workers and iron workers and doctors and nurses and emergency service workers who risked their lives throughout the following days to rescue or recover others or simply to speed the return to normalcy. I visited what they call “ground zero” two days after the disaster, the smoke and dust still thick in the air. I saw them on the hills of rubble, filthy and exhausted, carefully digging with hand tools and passing five-gallon buckets of debris down a long line of hollow-eyed helpers. Periodically, a horn would blow to signal another possible collapse or fire flare-up, sending a swarm of workers fleeing for their lives. But each time they returned, undeterred by the danger. Surely, we owe a great deal to them and they have earned the sobriquet of hero.

But less heard and far less sung is the heroism of New York’s educators. And what makes that resourcefulness and bravery even more admirable is the fact that – unlike the police, fire and other emergency workers – you weren’t trained for what you had to do that day. As one young teacher told me, “No ed course I ever took taught me what to do during a terrorist attack.”

From those who assured frightened children with the calmest certitude that everything would be all right (despite their own fears that nothing would ever be the same again) to those who led, carried and dragged countless youngsters to safer ground, UFT members displayed the best of what our profession stands for. At PS 89 a teacher told me, “For us it’s not a job; it’s our life!” Although you may never be the recipient of medals or memorialized in monuments, you have earned the appreciation of thousands of parents whose children arrived safely home that Tuesday afternoon.

One kindergartner summed it up for all those kids. “How did you get out?” his mother worriedly inquired. Matter-of-factly, he replied, “The teacher held my hand.”

Life over the next few months will be hard. We face uncertainty and challenges. Losses must be grieved, downtown must be rebuilt, the terrorists must be dealt with, and lives must go on.

But right now I swell with pride, and so should you. On behalf of a grateful union, I salute you and I thank you for all you did on Sept. 11, 2001.

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P.S. On another note, I’d like to take a paragraph to alert us all to the dangers of attributing to entire groups, especially ethnic groups, the worst characteristics of a few of their members. As educators and leaders, we must guard against expressions of prejudice in all its forms, and we must teach others to shun intolerance. We see the results when hatred goes unbridled. Let us take this opportunity to remind our students, and possibly our friends and neighbors, that what makes us Americans, and what will ultimately ensure our continued success as a vibrant democracy, is our dedication to the principle that no person should be discriminated against, regardless of economic, social, ethnic or religious status. The union has collected and will be distributing a resource guide to assist in the teaching of tolerance and respect for differences among people. I know that I can trust you to carry that message over the next critical weeks. Thank you.