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The Day That Shook America

Updated: Sep 11, 2021

Teachers share their experiences with the events of 9/11

Annika Kintzel

Staff Writer

September 10, 2021

September 11, 2001, was one of the most impactful days in United States history. On that day, terrorists from the extremist organization al-Qaeda crashed several planes into the World Trade Center, causing severe damage to the structure of both towers. Thousands of people were killed or injured in the event. Word of the events spread quickly, and children and adults all across the country united—true to the name—to mourn the losses of the day. The event itself would go on to start the War on Terror, as well as the subsidiary hunt for al-Qaeda. The day itself is the primary thing that sticks in the memory of those who were alive to witness it.

The staff at the high school have varying experiences with this day, with some being children and some being adults at the time, they carry perspectives and memories that paint a picture of the full shock that followed the destruction of the World Trade Center.

“I was in a passing period between 2nd and 3rd period when the stories started spreading through the halls of my high school. I lived on Long Island, New York at the time which is only 45 minutes from New York City,” Chloe Sweetser, a biology teacher who was 17 at the time, said. “There was no social media back then so parents started calling their children to tell them what happened and lots of friends had family members who were FDNY or NYPD and knew their parents, aunts, uncles, etc. were heading towards the towers to help. My mom called me to tell me my dad was in the city, and she had not heard from him yet. We found out much later that he saw the plane hit the tower, but immediately headed out of the city and made it home.”

The pain and shock were not restricted to only those in New York at the time.

“I was a freshman at Ball State,” entrepreneurship teacher John Moore said. “I went to my first class at 8:00 a.m. and knew nothing about what happened until I got to my next class at 9:30. It was a huge lecture hall, typically with over 100 students. There were only 4 in class. I figured it was canceled. As I was leaving, the professor walked in. He started each class with a music video. The one he played was "Peaceful World" by John Mellencamp and India Arie (still one of my favorite songs, and gives me chills every time I hear it). He turned on the news. The five of us watched it in the lecture hall for the next hour and talked about what was going on. After that, I went back to my dorm room, called my parents, and spent most of the day in front of the TV with others in my residence hall.”

“I was teaching at Zionsville High School at the time,” math teacher Andrew Schaaf said. “During the passing period between 1st and 2nd period, a student came in (I can still see her but can't remember her name) to my room and claimed a plane hit a building in New York. I told her that, although uncommon, this has happened before (twice to the Empire State Building I believe). She insisted that this was different, and so I told her I'd turn on the TV (a tube TV, by the way). Once I saw the picture of the North tower, I knew something terrible had happened. She and I stood there watching the broadcast as other students came into the room. After the bell rang everyone wanted to keep watching, and I didn't have a problem with that because it was really exceptional. To us, we thought this was a tragic plane accident. As we watched, though, all of us saw the second plane hit the South tower live over television. At that point, we all knew something terrible was happening, and the room was silent--completely silent--for the rest of the period.”

Pain and shock were not the only emotions felt, however, as described by Christian Horner, an AP Physics teacher and instructional coach.

“When I went to school the next day, one of my students was vocal that the whole thing was good because it killed a bunch of people from a certain religion he didn't like,” he said. “At that point, I was confused how something so terrible could be viewed as so ‘good’ by someone.”

People suffered even more from this event due to this mindset.

“I had a student teacher at the time who was of Pakistani origin,” Theater Director Rhonda Adams said. “He felt he would never again be able to get on an airplane in the US without someone fearing he was a terrorist, solely based on the color of his skin.”

“People speak fondly of the time of national unity that followed,” English teacher Dawn Knight said, “ and it was, in that Democrats and Republicans came together for a common cause. We put out patriotic displays. We talked to people in the line at the coffee shop and grocery store. We did random acts of kindness. We watched the stories of heroes who ran not out, but into the towers to help others. There were moments of tremendous courage and beauty and sacrifice. But not every American felt the unity. Similar to what Japanese Americans faced after Pearl Harbor, our Muslim American neighbors faced hatred and violence at unprecedented levels.”

Many more submissions came in from many different teachers with many experiences.

“I was here at Westfield High School that day,” math teacher Heidi Mangus said. “We were administering ISTEP tests that morning, and I was in an ISTEP test room when the first plane hit the tower. Another teacher was coming into the testing room to take over the administration of the test, and he told me at our switchover what had happened. He said "a plane flew into the World Trade Center" and I thought he meant a small plane. I went back to my classroom and turned on the news and saw what had actually happened. I went back to the testing room to complete the ISTEP testing for that morning, and it was very difficult to continue to read directions and administer the test, knowing what had happened. The students had been in testing the entire time and did not know of the events. At the end of the testing time, the principal came on the PA to announce to everyone what was going on, and I remember that the students were so confused. The towers had collapsed by then, and this was the first the ISTEP students had heard of it.”

“I was in Mr. Oilar's eighth-grade history class,” speech therapy teacher Danielle Bullock said. “He said he needed to chat with another teacher very quickly and left the room. When he returned he looked upset and told the class he would need a few minutes and told us to talk to each other. A little while later he shared with us that the twin towers had been hit by airplanes and that it happened on purpose. As a 13-year-old, I had no idea what the twin towers were but I did understand that my teacher was upset. As the day went on I realized that all of the teachers were upset. When all of the adults in your life are upset it is an unsettling feeling. When I arrived home from school both of my parents were there, typically no one was home. My mom let me in, locked the door, and gave me a hug. We talked more about what had happened and watched the footage on the TV. With each passing year, I watch news coverage of 9/11 and see posts on Facebook. As an adult, my heart aches more each year as I think about all of the lives lost, of the people who chose to jump out of the building to their death instead of burn alive, of all the people who woke up thinking they would have a normal day. I wish that we could unify as a country like we did after this tragedy 20 years ago.”

“That Tuesday was a beautiful day, and I had a 6-month-old baby at home,” Counselor Christy Ulsas said. “As I sat down to eat breakfast, I turned on the Today show, and they were showing the first tower, which had just been hit by the first plane. At that time, they were thinking it was an accident. I watched live as the second plane hit the tower. That's when they realized it was an act of terror. I sat there stunned, in disbelief of what I just saw. I couldn't comprehend that there were people in the plane and people at work. Then came reports about the firefighters going in to rescue people, and then people started to jump from the towers. It was surreal. And when the towers fell, I was in shock. I couldn't imagine that it was real! News then came in about the other two planes. It was devastating. There was also fear that other strikes would happen. Would my family in Chicago be safe? What about my brother that was out east traveling for business? What next?? I was glued to the TV the rest of the day and cried many times. It was a tragic day, one filled with fear and despair. Though when the US flag was flown at the Capital, and senators and members of Congress (from both sides of the aisle) sang together, I was filled with some hope. The grief we all felt over the following weeks was difficult, but we were all in it together. There was a sense of community and unity that I don't think we have felt since that time.”

“It was a Tuesday morning,” biology teacher Amy Clark said, “and the school where I taught had been in session for about an hour. Back then, ISTEP testing was done in the fall and all of our ISTEPpers were in their testing rooms taking the first test of the day. I wasn't scheduled to take over proctoring until later that morning, so I was spending that time in my classroom working on something Biology-related, I am sure. I stepped out for a moment to use the restroom and happened to pass a student (non-ISTEPper) who said something that made no sense to me at all. I asked him to repeat it and could not believe what I was hearing. At first, I did not take him seriously, but he assured me the news was true. I rushed back to my classroom and plugged in the huge TV-on-a-cart and tuned in to NBC. I remember just standing there watching the screen. The camera was aimed at the World Trade Center. As I watched and listened to the news anchors attempt to describe what was happening, an aircraft flew directly into the second tower. I remember the hairs on my arms standing up and tingly chills covering my body. First, one tower collapsed; then the other, but not before bodies could be seen falling to the ground, having jumped or been blown out of the buildings. There was so much smoke and dust and debris in the air for blocks and blocks, and people were running in the direction of whoever was filming the scene. Some folks were screaming; all were frantic. The time came for me to take over testing duties in my assigned ISTEP room. I arrived a few minutes early and whispered the devastating news to the proctor in charge, who, like me, was dumbfounded.”

“As a freshman at the University of Southern Indiana, I left for classes that day having no idea of what was happening in New York,” French and Spanish teacher Stacey O’Brien said. “When I got to my first class, a girl I knew was crying and talking about a plane hitting a building. At that time in my life, New York seemed as far away as a foreign country and I just assumed that she meant the plane hit the building by accident. I continued on to class where my Spanish professor told us, tearfully, that World War III was starting, women were going to be drafted, and many lives were going to be lost. Few of us had any details, but it quickly became clear that something significant was happening and we were afraid. Classes were canceled for the rest of that day and students were encouraged to go home and watch the news. A cloud of disbelief and shock set in as soon as we understood this was a deliberate attack. Who would do such a thing? How could someone hurt so many on purpose? We watched the news coverage of the first tower and then saw as the second tower was hit. As the stories unraveled throughout the day, we sat helpless and devastated, hurting for strangers and for friends and family members who were desperately seeking news of loved ones in New York City. It felt like a violation. Before that morning, many of us had taken so many things for granted. In the days that came, we became a changed nation.”

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