I was sitting in AP English IV first hour, which was way too early for European classics. Mrs. Breicheisen-Pribyl was my English teacher, a genius of sorts, but at the time she was really pissing me off. She had just given a speech on why food and drink were now banned in her classroom (liter and disruptive crinkling of candy bar wrappers). My head was in my hand and my eyes barely open enough to secretly scowl at her, as my Diet Coke and Twix beckoned from my backpack.
My senior year of high school started with mild drama when I quit the orchestra in order to join the newspaper staff. I spent my entire day in the English department, with the last hour in AP Music Theory. AP English, Grammar, Assistant to Sophomore English, Newspaper, Muse Literary Magazine and music theory. It was, now that I look back on it, the perfect day. Though I spent every free minute thinking of either my Oberlin audition or my pending brain surgery, the lack of free minutes made for a beautiful start to my end at Blue Valley Northwest High School.
Mrs. Breicheisen-Pribyl, who we just called “BP,” had not finished her rant of disappointment when her husband, Mr. Pribyl, entered our classroom. He seemed calm enough, but his pace rushed as to make me lift my head and follow him with my eyes across the room. He taught AP III next door but I rarely saw him in her classroom. He whispered something into BP’s ear and they looked at each other for a moment. It was a look that two parents might share as their son is shipped off to war.
The regular hum of a senioritis-filled classroom ceased when she didn’t begin speaking again after Mr. Pribyl left. I had studied with these peers for three years and had never heard them so quiet. BP walked to the television and reached to click it on manually. Her arm came back down like she was pondering, “Do I really want to do this?” “Mr. Stanfill,” she said sternly. “Turn off the lights.” Her arm reached back up toward the TV.
I remember vividly that first image, of the tower with smoke billowing out of the side. I tried to piece together the facts, based on what I knew and what the newscaster was saying. BP glared at the television, terrified. The part of me that was still a child wanted to ignore this the same selfish way I did most of the news. But with the speed and confusion at which my brain was operating, I could only try to process the morning’s events as an adult. I was too old for this to become a fantastical story of heroism and strength. It was ingrained in my memory as a horrifying reality.
After English I peeked into Mrs. McCrossen’s room and decided to skip my assistant block and proceed straight to Mr. Mcrossen’s journalism space. I sat on the table in the newspaper lair, keeping the door open to the main room so that I could hear the commentary. At some point I went down to get lunch, brining it up to the room so that I could mechanically put food in my mouth while I watched the news. Others joined me from the newspaper or yearbook staffs. We watched the second plane hit, the towers fall and relived the footage over and over, in the same way CNN replays the clips year after year.
When 1:30 arrived, people started to disperse. I walked slowly to the Fine Arts hallway, passing each room full of flashing television images and the blaring, unrehearsed vocals of the news anchors. I expected to find the same in the choir room, but rather, I found a frustrating sense of normality. The television was off and Mr. Eaton began class as normally as possible. He said he did not feel it necessary to continue watching the same footage over and over. The best thing we could do, he stated, is learn something today. It made me angry. How dare he act as if this is a normal day. This is the news! This is important!
In his own way, though, I think Mr. Eaton was trying to protect what little childhood we had remaining. It was a noble pursuit and for an hour it was successful. We took dictation and sung sol-feg as if it were any other day. No one knew what was about to change in our country, so he was trying to preserve our ignorance just a little bit longer.
I drove home listening to NPR, because I couldn’t stand to hear my favorite Top 40 DJs discussing tragedy. I pulled my car over in the middle of my shortcut subdivision and cried. Odd for a habitual drama-queen, it was the first tear I shed all day.
I finally checked my phone messages when I arrived at home. “What?” my brother asked solemnly when he walked into the kitchen. My eyes were wide in panic as I listened to my father’s voicemail. “My flight made it from Newark okay and I’m driving to St. Louis to pick up your mom.” Was my father really in the same airport as United 93’s hijackers? Part of me was mad at myself for forgetting what was now such an important detail of my father’s travel plans, the other part was relieved that I didn’t spend the day thinking my father was flying from the New York area.
My brother, who would normally retreat to his room to deal with a traumatic event, sat on the floor in the living room, watching CNN while we awaited my parents’ arrival. Sometime after 6:00 the U.S. Congress gathered spontaneously on the steps of the capitol in the live broadcast and sung “God Bless America.”
That is perhaps the image and the sound that haunt me most with me from that day. “God Bless America” is technically a song that I oppose due to its unnecessary mix of Church and State; but now it is one of my favorites. Every time my students learn it, I remember the heartbroken lawmakers whose only way to make sense of the day was to sing.
So many lives were changed that day, and every generation, every person, experienced it differently. I experienced it in my English and journalism classrooms, seeing my teachers breakdown and support us at the same time. I experienced it in the choir room, with a teacher that wanted to shelter and protect me. I experienced it on the steps of the United States Capitol, with a song full of both hopelessness and hope. But most of all, we experienced it together, and none of us will ever forget.