But at 9:05, all hell broke loose. The slightly stooped but always salty Judy Harris, Grande Dame of the English Dept., came running down the hall. She stopped at each classroom door & hollered, "Turn on your TV! Turn on your TV!" Judy was one of slight stature & advancing age. No one had ever seen this guardian of grammar run so fast nor act so agitated.
Turns out Judy had been at the dentist, & was just arriving at school. She'd heard The News on the radio.
A little background: My school is located in the DC suburbs. We are one of the closest schools in our district to the Pentagon--about 10 miles straight down the Interstate. Because of this proximity, a full 75 percent of our students hail from military families. A good hunk of those kids have one or both parents working at that symbol of America's Military Might, wedged between Arlington Cemetery & the Potomac River.
No lingering in the halls between classes that day. Word of the first plane hitting the North Tower spread quickly through the school. I stood before 28 terrified AP English Language students, sitting mute in their seats. As high school juniors, they were all 16 or 17 years old. \
Dr. Dave, our beloved principall, came on the PA about 9:10. He knew the hallways were clear, & he knew his kids. They were in their classes, with their teachers, because they were scared & wanted to be closest to those they knew best.
Dave told us about the North Tower of the World Trade Center. but like most Americans that day, he was a little behind the curve. We turned on the TV just in time to see a replay of the South Tower getting hit (The plane hit the North Tower at 8:46; the South Tower was hit 17 minutes later).
Oh, God, the news kept getting worse. The kids were frozen in their seats. I squeezed the television remote so tightly it left bruises on my fingers that didn't disappear for days.
Dr. Dave came on the PA again, around 9:25. A sputter, a sigh, a "Hello again. I have some more news to report." Flight 93 had been hijacked. Rumors spread that the plane was headed for either the White House or Capitol Hill.
The kids devoured the wall-to-wall TV coverage. I prayed. At 9:37 a.m., Flight 77 hit the Pentagon. Dr. Dave announced the news from the PA about 10 minutes later. A slow intake of breath from both teacher and students, sort of that sucking noise that results when one doesn't yet know how to proceed. The kids looked as if each had just been told their lives were ending that very minute.
"Mrs. Scribe, what do we do?" Cristina blurted this question, then burst into tears. I asked, then, for a show of hands.
"How many have parents who work at the Pentagon?" Twenty-seven out of 28 students raised their hands. Most were crying by now.
"How many of y'all have cell phones?" Remember, this was seven years ago. Not everyone had a calling plan in 2001. Also, cellies are not supposed to be around during school hours, although most kids these days carry them anyway.
About 10 students raised their hands.
Of course, the phone lines were jammed. The school went into lockdown. Parents were allowed to come pick up their kids, but no one else had permission to leave.
My 28 AP Lang students alternated between trying to call parents and watching--sometimes screaming at--the television. Kelsey's dad called to say he was OK. Brandon's Mom phoned to say she had made it home. One by one, parents got in touch with their kids, or children reached Mom or Dad on a borrowed cellie. Within the hour, everyone had confirmed that their parentals were safe.
Except for Cristina. Her dad was Navy, and worked in the "D"-Ring of the Pentagon, which suffered the most fatalities that day. At first, Cristina could not get through to either parent. Then, her mom called. No one had heard from Dad. The phone lines all over the region were still impossibly dysfunctional.
We waited. One kid took a Bible out of her backpack. Others hugged. All eyes bored into the TV, mounted into its black metal brackets in the corner of the room, high above all the anxious faces. The contraption that I still, all these years later, hit my head on when I stand up too suddenly at my desk.
Mike's mom came to the classroom to pick him up. One by one, students trickled out the door. A wave, an expression of hope; then most disappeared down the hall, holding hands with their parents--even the macho football boys.
Cristina wanted to try one more time. She didn't have a cell, so I tossed mine to the frightened young woman with the straight, thick strawberry blond locks. She sighed. Flipped her hair out of her eyes. Shrugged her shoulders. Wiped the tears and mascara off her cheeks. Dialed.
Her face lighted up. "It's ringing!" She started to do a little dance around the desk. "Hello? Hello? Daddy?" She burst into tears again.
Her dad was sitting out on the lawn, by the Pentagon North Parking Lot. He had been at an appointment, away from the building that morning. Having his teeth worked on. Turns out a trip to the dentist probably saved his life.