Living and Teaching September 11, in the Classroom and on the Stage

with their eyes

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I emerged from the subway station to see Chambers Street filled with people, all looking up. I looked up too. Both towers of the World Trade Center were on fire, smoke billowing from the gashes left by the two airplanes which had crashed into them minutes before. From those gashes flew swirls of paper, and small black objects fell from the windows. After a moment, I realized that the small black objects were people. I caught my breath and turned down the hill, toward school.

Moments from that morning are burned into my memory: The way the building shook as the first tower fell. Meeting my freshman homeroom in the cafeteria, one girl crying beneath her hijab; two other girls, who had met only days earlier, trying to comfort her. Walking down the stairs as if for a fire drill, understanding for the first time the purpose of fire drills, feeling oddly normal even as one of my colleagues yelled, “This is not a drill! This is a real emergency!” Walking north on the West Side Highway, watching students disperse in small groups. Looking back at one point to realize that the second tower had fallen.

I was 25 years old, at the beginning of my second year of full-time teaching. I was deeply aware in those momentsI think we all werethat the world had changed irrevocably. It is a strange thing to know this at the moment it is happening.

There is the emergency, and then there is the aftermath. Students posted stories of their journeys home on online message boards (social media in its infancy). Spectator reporters and writers met at the house of their faculty advisor, Holly Ojalvo, to write and edit their incredibly powerful 9/11 issue. We were out of school. We were back in school holding shortened classes from 1:30 to 6:30 p.m. at Brooklyn Tech, sharing their building for two weeks. We were back at Stuyvesant by the second week in October, trying to return to normalcy while air quality testers roamed the halls and a barge of smoking rubble sat in the river just north of our building.

In the months following the attacks, I worked with a small group of students to create and perform the play “with their eyes.” Ten student actors interviewed 23 members of the Stuyvesant communitystudents, faculty, and staffrecorded, transcribed, and edited the interviews, and performed them in the character of the interviewees. Each interview-based monologue used the actual words and speech patterns of the interviewee, complete with pauses, “like”s, and “um”s. The completed play was a patchwork of individual experiences: a senior who had to move out of his apartment near Ground Zero, furious at the tourists who came to take pictures of the site; a pregnant English teacher; a security guard who saw his life flash before his eyes; a Muslim student worried about racial profiling.

“with their eyes” was performed at Stuyvesant in February 2002 and published as a book by HarperCollins in September of that year. The experience of working on the play and the life of the book have shaped my relationship to the events of September 11 over the last 15 years in complex ways.

At Stuyvesant in 2001-2002, the creation of “with their eyes” was controversial. Many students felt that they had been interviewed enough by local media and wanted to get back to their normal lives; they didn’t want to dwell on the experience or relive the day. Performances of the play went well, and those who came largely found it moving and effective, but we never sold out a show. In response to student objections, the STC put on a second Winter Drama that year: a production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”

Those of us involved in creating the play cemented a deep connection. The student director, Ilena George, and two student producers, Lindsay Long-Waldor and Michael Vogel, worked with me to bring together a diverse group of actors, representative of the racial, ethnic, and age diversity of the student body. Freshmen Taresh Batra and Carlos Williams; sophomores Cathy Choy, Tim Drinan, and Chris Yee; juniors Anna Belc and Shanleigh Jalea; and seniors Marcel Briones, Liz O’Callahan, and Chantelle Smith worked together to collect stories from across the Stuyvesant community. Each student actor played two or more interviewees, often crossing racial and gender lines in their portrayals. Our rehearsals were intense, but also filled with humor – the only way to deal with such heavy material. As a group, we have come together in whole or in part for a reunion every year since 2003.

The publication of “with their eyes” became a means of connection with other communities around the country. It has been produced at high schools from Kansas to Florida, from Washington to South Dakota, and by two repertory companies in California and Missouri. Individual monologues have been used widely in speech competitions, and portions of the play have appeared twice in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. Through videotaped productions and a few lucky in-person visits, members of the original cast and I have been able to see some of these productions. It is incredibly moving to know that the stories we gathered in the aftermath of tragedy have spoken to so many people. (It’s also fascinating to see how people across the country perform what they believe to be a New York accent.)

For many years, I used “with their eyes” in my classroom: sometimes, I would teach a monologue or two in Freshman Composition or Writers’ Workshop on the anniversary; each semester, I used it as a mentor text in my Women’s Voices course when I asked students to interview women in their lives for a Monologue Project. (Dr. Moore has taught a version of the Monologue Project in her Freshman Composition class, in conjunction with reading “The Joy Luck Club.”)

The experience of teaching “with their eyes” at Stuyvesant has changed over the years. At first, with students who had been present on September 11, it felt almost too close – these students had their own stories of that day and knew the interviewees. Some found the play compelling, but others chose to read an alternate text rather than revisit what had been for them a traumatizing experience. Then that began to fade: there was the first year when none of the students in my class had been there, though they remembered September 11 as middle-schoolers. The first year they remembered it as grade-schoolers. The first year when most of my students didn’t have a personal memory of the day at all. “with their eyes” has become, over the years, a time capsule rather than a reflection of our community.

In 2011, the STC put on a 10th anniversary production of “with their eyes”. I met with the cast, and helped to facilitate visits from some of the play’s original cast members and interviewees. Together, we toured the newly-opened World Trade Center Memorial. During the conversations around that visit, I was struck by the way the students involved in the revival spoke about the play helping them understand their parents’ stories of September 11. Ten years later, the experience was already a generation removed.

Time works in funny ways in a high school, at once very slow and very fast. I first entered Stuyvesant as a freshman in 1989 in the old building on East 15th St. I first entered the new building, our building on Chambers St., as a senior in the class of 1993. This fall, I am returning to the classroom after three and a half years on child care leave. For the first time since I began teaching at Stuyvesant in 2000, I will begin the school year knowing none of the students in the building.

I will come back, as many of my colleagues on the faculty and staff do every year, with the memory of that morning in September of 2001 still fresh in my mind. I will walk past the plaque on the first floor commemorating the loss of nine Stuyvesant alumni on September 11, among them my high school classmate Marina Gertsberg. I will be grateful that this year’s anniversary falls on a weekend rather than a school day. As I do every year, I will hope for cloudy skies, not the clear blue I remember from the day of the attacks. I will plan, and teach, and grade, and look for ways to get to know my students’ stories this year, to keep history in mind while re-joining our community as it is now.

From “with their eyes”: September 11th: the view from a high school at ground zero,

  1. Annie Thoms, HarperTempest 2002

 

Overture

Kevin Zhang, sophomore

I saw this
huge plane it was…
it looked much bigger than the first one,
it just,
it looked like one of those jets, you know, in the movies,
you know, Air Force One or something, one of those big jets.
It was one of those and it just hits –
It hit the building right there.

 

Katherine Fletcher, English teacher

I noticed it enough to say to my class
what was that
sort of casually
I wasn’t scared or alarmed I just sort of said what
was that
and someone said
thunder
and I was like no
it’s not thunder
it must have been a truck
it was like the sound of a truck like hitting something on a street or
you know how sometimes you’ll hear something like that.

 

Hudson Williams-Eynon, freshman

We all went to art.
My art class is on the tenth floor
turned
facing north so
we couldn’t see anything but
everyone was looking out
the windows
so
the teacher was like
“You know,
this might sound stupid and everything
but I still want you guys to draw.
You can tell your kids that when
the World Trade Center was
y’know
attacked
you guys were drawing
contour drawings.”

 

Juan Carlos Lopez, School Safety Agent

I got this weird transmission
the strangest transmission in my life
that a plane hit the World Trade Center
and I ran into the computer room to see.
I haven’t gotten back into that office.
The recollection of what I saw is framed in that window,
like if I had to draw you a picture I would
have to draw the window frame as well.
I’m a little apprehensive,
just looking at these banners I get a little choked up.
So I – I fear going into that office
I might lose my composure.
But it’s been long enough that maybe I could go into that office
and take it in
but I, I –
you know in a way I don’t feel ready, I don’t.

 

Katie Berringer, freshman

We didn’t know what was going on
so when we see this like
psychopathic lady running down the hallway
like “I need to call my mother, I need to call my mother!”
and we’re like
What is wrong with HER?
and we didn’t know what was going on so we were like
laughing at her.
But then we heard that thing on the speakers
but we still thought it was like
tiny and they were telling us out of respect
like when that guy died and everyone had a moment of silence.
We thought it was something like that –
but I saw my friend and he was telling me
like about all those things he was seeing out the windows
and I was like holy shit
this is big.

 

Jennifer Suri, Assistant Principal, Social Studies

There were students who came into my office to use the phone
to touch base with their parents
to see if they were okay…
and there were actually many of them crowded into my room
and the electricity went out
momentarily and the lights started flickering and everyone screamed
and dropped to the floor, frightened.
And I just tried to comfort them.

 

Copies of  “with their eyes” can be found in the school library and the English Department.

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