Students look to teachers for answers, reassurance

Attacks: Schools have become forums for questions, discussions and analyses on last week's events.

Terrorism Strikes America

September 18, 2001|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN COLUMNIST

Dempsey Miller's assignment from her teacher was to take Brownie Bear, the classroom stuffed toy, for the weekend and write about their adventures in the bear's "travel journal."

Since Dempsey's family was planning a mini-vacation, Tracy Gload knew her Crofton Woods first-grader would probably have plenty to write about.

But when she opened the journal to read Dempsey's entry to the class on Thursday, she was unprepared for what the child had written.

"We took Brownie Bear to New York City. We took pictures of the Statue of Liberty. We stayed right across the street from Central Park. We took a carriage ride through the park.

"On our last day an airplane crashed into the World trade center. We saw the smoke out our window," read Dempsey's entry in Brownie Bear's travel journal.

"Now we are home safe and so is Brownie Bear."

Dempsey illustrated her account by drawing the Statue of Liberty, skyscrapers and a burning building.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," Gload said.

In the fear and confusion immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, many area children were hustled out of schools and into the anxious embrace of parents. Some, especially the younger children, were not told why.

"Your parents will explain it to you," teachers said.

But when schoolchildren returned to their teachers, they brought with them schoolbags stuffed with stubborn fears and questions. And they expected their teachers to have the answers.

Their questions would have given Socrates pause: Are we all going to die? If we are in a war, with whom are we fighting? Why do they hate us so much? What will happen next?

School is as important a place in the lives of children as home. It is their world, a separate world from family, populated by friends who are nearly as important as siblings, and teachers who are nearly as important as parents.

And Leon Rosenberg, psychologist and professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, says, "Schools are a terrific place to help children deal with this."

But teachers found themselves in the impossible position of assuring children that their school was safe, while stopping short of promising nothing bad would happen to them or those they love.

"You can't make promises like that to children," said Rosenberg. "They can see right through your lie."

Ellen Sheppard, school counselor at Catonsville Elementary, said the children in the lower grades seemed to be unaware of the tragedy, or at least uncomprehending, while the third-, fourth- and fifth- graders were clearly afraid.

"We told them that right now they are safe, at this moment, today. That we have taken precautions, and we are leaving the rest in the hands of the government," she said.

"Their fear is that this is going to be World War III," said Sheppard. "They wanted to know if we are going over there to fight, or if they are coming here.

"We told them that if it happens again, it won't happen in Catonsville."

Like Sheppard, Sister Cecilia Cyford, SSJ, fourth- and fifth-grade religion teacher at Sacred Heart School in Glyndon, found the children had been thoroughly, and appropriately, briefed by their parents, but they still wanted to talk.

"There was a lot of confusion," Cyford said. "And fear. Could it happen again? Is it really over? Basically what they were asking was, `Can it happen to people I know, like my mom and dad?' "

Putting things in perspective

At Annapolis High, Leslie Stefany posted newspaper headlines all over the blackboard and asked her freshman government class to explain, once again, "What are the purposes of a government?"

She said her students were able to distinguish for her the difference between an attack on democracy and an attack on humanity. But the discussion of symbols took a backseat to the pain of the human heart when Stefany saw one of her former students in the hall, tearful.

"His brother is at West Point. He is afraid for him," she said.

In a nearby classroom, Phil Greenfield's advanced placement religion class sunk its teeth into a discussion of zealotry, the flip side of religion.

"We talked about how, like anything else man has a hand in, religion is a blessing and a curse," says Greenfield. "Why would it be any different than science, which gives us stem cells as well as biological warfare, or the law, which was used to create apartheid and Jim Crow.

"If this isn't a teachable moment, I don't know what is."

At St. Mary's, down the street in Annapolis, the high school students wanted to know how their daily lives would change.

"They wanted to know if we were going to war. They are old enough to know that when we were in World War I or World War II, that meant sacrifices," said Colleen Mitsopoulos, who works with the parish's youth ministry and has four daughters in grades 9 through 12.

"But there was tremendous compassion, too, for friends who have parents who work in the Pentagon as well as those they don't know who lost loved ones."

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