Attacks change students’ lives

2011-09-09T00:00:00Z Attacks change students’ livesBy Lee Phillips Montana Standard
September 09, 2011 12:00 am  • 

It was a gray and rainy morning in Great Falls on Sept. 11, 2001. The building was lit only by the hall and classroom lights. Students were at their lockers and the main desk of the south annex was busy with passes and late sign-ins. I turned on the lights in the classroom and started prepping for sophomore English. A few students straggled into the classroom and laid their heads on their desks. It was the first week of school and we would be working on world literature this year. The novel “Things Fall Apart” by Chinoa Achebe was on the reading list.

The bell had not rung yet and I was copying handouts at the main desk before class. Someone, a woman, said that she heard there was a plane crash at the World Trade Center in New York City; that would have been at 8:48 EDT or 6:48 MDT. I could hear the news from her radio, a jetliner had crashed into one of the twin towers. I could hear the din of voices from the clerical staff and teachers nearby clucking and shaking their heads, “What a tragedy.” “How horrible.” “Those poor people.”

I grew up outside of New York City in New Jersey, but my great-grandmother lived in Queens. I spent many days in the city at art 

museums, seeing Broadway shows and hanging out with friends and family. I knew that it was not an accident that a jetliner crashed into the twin tower. Don’t ask me how I knew, I just did.

I was looking for a TV. I needed real time information. I found a TV cart and rolled it out to the main desk, someone found the cable connection and CNN came up white and bright, as we watched people jump from the tower to their deaths. There was silence. Everything began to move in slow motion. It was 9:02 EDT or 7:02 MDT and the second plane struck the second tower. I grabbed another TV cart and started toward my classroom, this was gonna be one helluva teachable moment.

My students took their seats as the tardy bell rang. The CNN headline scrolling across the screen as the bell rang was “South Tower at WTC Collapses.” At 8:28 MDT we all watched as the second tower fell. I could tell that they didn’t really get what was happening ... so far away in NYC and planes crash all the time. What was the big the deal? I turned down the volume of the TV and asked for their attention. I explained that today, their lives would be changed forever. The world as they knew it was gone. I asked them to witness and remember. And then I turned up the sound and we watched as the people of NYC suffered the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor.

Over 3,000 souls lost in fiery infernos. The horror was all-encompassing.

It wasn’t until the following year that I started to get personal closure. My students and other classes from the district built obons (a Japanese memorial ceremony to honor the memory of the dead). Each four-sided obon was inscribed with the name of a life lost. We floated them on the pond in the city park with the help of the Great Falls Fire Department, and then set them on fire and watched as the name inscribed papers floated into the night sky. Gone but not forgotten.


— Lee Phillips is director of the Butte-Silver Bow library. 

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