Tuesday, September 11, 2001 began as any other day for a principal heading to work. The difference for me was that it was only my second day being the leader of my own building. I remember getting out of my car that morning excited to welcome students, teachers, and parents and to start a new school year. I recall walking to the playground for morning line ups. And I remember, as everyone else has recalled, what a beautiful day it was! There was not a cloud in the sky. The temperature was perfect. And everyone was smiling and excited for the 2001-2002 school year!
As the nine o’clock bell rang, I closed the door after the last student entered the building, making sure it was locked, and made my classroom rounds to say good morning to everyone. When I got back into the main office I remember my secretary, Doreen, saying to me, “Jeff, check the TV. Something is going on in New York”. Since the internet was not what it is today, I walked to the next room over, which was the art room, and turned on the television. The news footage of the first plane, that had already hit the tower, was on the screen. My initial thought was that of years ago, when a small plane had inadvertently struck the tower as well. It was not until the second plane hit the tower that I and everyone else realized what was happening. I immediately got on the phone to the central office and spoke with the superintendent. Then, along with my colleagues from the other four district schools, we started to brainstorm how to handle the situation.
I walked outside for a moment to get some fresh air and heard a noise that made me quite nervous. When I looked up, I saw two fighter jets screaming over the top of our school, heading towards New York City. With tears in my eyes I walked back to the office and took a drink of water. I looked at Doreen and asked her “What the heck is happening?” I sat stunned, looked out the back window of the school to the large field surrounded by woods. Is this really happening? I immediately thought of the staff members who could have loved ones working in the Trade Centers or in the surrounding Financial Center buildings. I then began walking to each classroom, and from the doorway called the teacher over to ask a question I could barely find the words to ask: “Do you have students with any family members who work in or around the World Trade Center?” In my mind the only answer I wanted to hear from each and every teacher was “No!”.
I continued around the two floors of classrooms. One by one I received the answer that I wanted to hear. Once I received an answer, I briefly told the teacher what was transpiring, and once I had an opportunity to go around to speak to everyone, if there were any teachers who felt they needed some time, I said I would cover or have an assistant cover their class. Additionally, I remember advising the staff that they were not to discuss what was happening with students as that information needed to come from home, not from their classroom teacher.
When the first tower fell, we immediately received phone calls from parents wanting to come pick up their children. As parents began to pull up to the school, the look of terror on their faces caused me to hold back tears. Though at the time I had no children of my own, I felt, as did my teachers and staff, as if our students are our children. The remainder of that school day was a blur. At the end, I told all of our staff to go home and check on friends and loved ones. I then got in my car and headed home to do the same.
It was not until I got home that I started to process the number of friends and neighbors who were working either in one of the Towers or in the Financial Center across the street. My neighbor to the left, Eric, and my neighbor directly across the street, Mike, both worked in the World Financial Center. My childhood friends Bob, Mike, and a few others, worked in one of the two Towers. Throughout the afternoon and evening we tried to reach them through cell phone calls and text messages. As the hours went by, not hearing from them and watching from my home television, the pit in my stomach grew larger and larger. By the grace of God, my friends and neighbors were all able to evacuate and return home safely.
As news reports continued throughout the night all I could think about were the families who had not heard from their loved one, nor knew of their whereabouts. I remember sitting with my wife on the couch and asking her “What am I supposed to do tomorrow at school?” Her answer was what I expected, “Just love and care for everyone there as you do every other day.” And that’s just what I did. The next day, September 12, I made sure to check on everyone, and I made sure that students, staff, and parents all knew that our school was there in any way that anyone needed us to be.
As the days passed, it seemed that we grew stronger as a school community. As I write this story almost 20 years later, I reflect on the most important quality a building leader can have. It’s not a skill, professional knowledge, or experience. It’s empathy. It is the most important thing we can express and impart to our students and our fellow educators. The daily practice of putting the well-being of others first has a uniting effect in our relationships, in our friendships, and on the way we treat each other. Anything other than this will never allow you to get through the challenging times you will inevitably face.
This post is an excerpt from Caring in Crisis: Stories to Inspire and Guide School Leaders.