Former Masterman teacher remembers 9-11
Eighteen years ago, it was a gorgeous day in Philadelphia. Driving to work, stopped at a red light on West River Drive, I gazed at the sunlight dancing off the wind-whisked ripples on the surface of the Schuylkill River. The sky was clear and blue, and the skyline of the city I love shimmered in the distance. I was on my way to Masterman High School for a new year of teaching, filled with hope and gratitude for the career I’d chosen that gave meaning and purpose to my life.
The day began the way it should have. Homeroom in Room 301, with students reconnecting after a long summer apart. Then first period. English 3. The students had read Catcher in the Rye as their summer reading, and I was planning an inquiry unit into “The American Dream,” a unifying question for a year of American Literature. That day, students had brought in objects – one each – that represented the American Dream to them. And we had a gallery walk, getting up from our seats and looking at all the objects. A wonderful discussion ensued, during which many of the questions that would focus our yearlong inquiry emerged. The bell rang, and it was a perfect first day of class.
In the hallway, I saw one of my colleagues, Bill Synder, the social studies teacher who taught next door. He looked agitated. “There was a plane crash into the World Trade Center,” he said. And that was all I heard as students in my second-period class arrived. When they took their seats, I had to make a split-second decision. Do I tell them what I’d heard and turn on the TV? Or do I teach as if nothing happened?
I turned on the TV. And that’s how we all sat dumbfounded and terrified as the second plane crashed into the second tower. Later, we saw the buildings collapse. Later, we were dismissed from school – told to go right home and stay there. Later, school was cancelled for the next day. Later, we returned, different from how we’d been before. The inquiry into the American Dream took on new dimensions as we struggled to make sense of what had happened.
Following are excerpts of a piece of theater we created in the weeks that followed September 11. As all good theater does, it captures the immediacy of the moment – the first draft of history – that we remember today.
The students who wrote this piece are now in their 30s. If you are out there reading this, here’s a piece of your youth. I am grateful to you all for your willingness to explore your feelings and questions and to share it all in our classroom.
Dust to Dust – Living Through September 11, 2001
By the Masterman Drama and Inquiry Class
Part I – Mundane
Eyewitness AISLING September 11th – I wake up and go to my 8 o’clock class.
Eyewitness BEN Well, I remember, I was sleeping on, in my bed, on the futon, uh, in the living room and, uuuhh, I felt the building shake …
Young Man MARQUES I’ll be honest, though. I was sorta excited. Like, it’s something out of the ordinary. I mean that’s not to disrespect anyone, you know, the situation in any way, but you know, sometimes daily life gets kinda mundane.
Eyewitness BEN … and I kinda thought at first it was a sonic boom, but then I kinda figured what would they be testing jets over Lower Manhattan at, ya know, 8:30 in the morning on a Tuesday. Uuuhm, and I wasn’t quite awake yet either to really give it too much thought, so I sorta fell back to sleep and whatever the exact time interval, I don’t remember from the news, but the second plane hit, and the impact actually threw me off of my bed.
Little Boy NIRVANA ‘Cause, when I first heard about it, I didn’t really know much about it. Soooo, I really wasn’t that scared.
Woman JULIA A workman stopped me and said, “Did you hear about it? A plane crashed into the World Trade towers.” I sort of blocked it out of my mind and went about my business.
Eyewitness AISLING Twenty minutes after seeing the broadcasts, I had to leave for my next class. The entire time I was wondering if terrorists would hit something next. Living in Washington, three blocks away from the White House, I was nervous. I have never been more scared than I was right after Washington was attacked. Seeing people running in every direction from federal buildings was crazy. If the government is telling all federal workers to leave Washington and I’m stuck in the middle of Washington in my dorm room, of course I am going to be scared. I felt as though I was sitting in the bull’s-eye of a giant dartboard.
Little Boy NIRVANA First we heard, when I was in the bathroom, people from the other class saying, “Yeah, we have a half-day ’cause of a plane cra… a plane crashing. I was actually in Science. We had been hearing fibs like “a plane crashed into the Statue of Liberty, it’s about to fall.” That kind of stuff. My teacher finally stopped us talking about it, and she started talking about it, and I just thought it was awful. ‘Cause who would do something like that? It’s just … unthinkable.
Part II – Chaos
Eyewitness JILL Everything was totally chaos on Tuesday. Everyone was running around, not knowing what to do. When the second building fell down, cries came out, that, like, it would break your heart if you had to hear. Everyone was screaming and running, It sounded like New York herself was crying. I don’t think anyone knew where they were running. They just were. Seemed like they were trying to race back into time, you know, before this ever happened.
Eyewitness BEN But I kinda got a sense from them that they didn’t even have a clear idea of what was going on and they were more concerned with ushering the … the fire department and rescue squads that were already being deployed into the zone. Umm, and at that point, ya know, nobody was figuring that they were gonna collapse, uhhh ,,, so it was quite, ya know (beat) upsetting (beat) afterward to realize that (beat) during those few moments, we were literally watching guys, ya know, sort of run toward their graves.
Young Woman JULIA And they kept showing the same scene over and over and over and over. It got really annoying. It’s OK for them to have it on regular TV, because it’s free, but if I’m paying for cable then I should be able to get what I’m paying for.
Woman CATHLEEN I would love to deport all of the Arab nationals who are over here on illegal visas or have illegal immigration papers and even those who have legal papers. I would put a waiver on a lot of civil rights that people carrying green cards have in this country. I don’t know what else to do.
Man ANTHONY Thank God I’m not in a position to have to come up with the solution. We have to stand by our government. We have to make sure we are all in line with what the president says and does.
Young Man MARQUES WHAT??? So, like, we don’t have to follow along the rules of decency and, like, it just doesn’t, I dunno, we just do what we please with no regard to any other nation? I don’t mean to say we have it coming. I think it’s a tragedy, a grand tragedy for all the people that died. But I think that’s where the tragedy stops. I mean we have the right to attack people, but they don’t have the right to attack us?
Part III – Too Philosophical
Eyewitness JILL That night, everything got so weird. It was, like, silent. It was like New York was asleep, for the first time ever. I was walking around taking pictures today. You know you’re used to seeing missing-dog posters on every corner or so, but now it’s missing people signs every couple of feet. Pictures of these smiling faces – faces that are lost.
Man DAVE At Rosh Hashanah services, the tragedy was on everyone’s mind. I think it set the background for all of the prayers that we were saying that day. It’s like all the prayers had a tinge to them now that they never had before. And when I was, um, leading the part of the service and when I came to the prayer for peace, I just felt very, very emotional and at the end of the, uhhhh, section of prayers, the last prayer is a prayer for peace. Every word just seemed so vitally important to me.
Young Man LAMAR What they don’t realize is that this is a holy war. In my opinion, God is on the side of the believers, the Muslims. These cats think they just gonna wipe out the Afghans. Nah, man, nah. Not if it’s the will of God. We gonna be the ones wiped out. People gonna see how corrupt they are, ya know. I hope they, uhhh, turn to God, ya know. If they don’t, they gotta pay.
Young Man ANTHONY You know, I think what we are facing here is a war against a belief system. That means we are facing an intellectual enemy, not one of brick or mortar. The “enemy” theoretically could be your neighbor, best friend, or the person standing behind you in the store. We are “fighting” something that is not tangible. Thought has no body. No headquarters to bomb. Thought is liquid. (2 beats) Was that too philosophical?
Part IV – Dust to Dust
Eyewitness JILL On Wednesday, the air changed and the wind blew towards us. It was like a really dense fog, the dust and asbestos were everywhere. I just walked around a lot, but I had to wear a wet paper towel on my face. Everything I wore was covered with dust.
Young Woman JULIA I think that all those people are dead now, so they need to stop looking for people. What they need to do is just dump all the debris in the ocean and have one big mass funeral and memorial service. That would be a lot easier. Because they’re not going to find any more people alive so it’s a waste of time to keep looking for people. And they want you to send clothes and money and stuff up there, but for what? What they need to do is just dump all the debris in the ocean.
Eyewitness BRONWEN There were people lined up cheering for the workers as we passed by. People were crowded along the street to thank the rescue workers. They had water and food and all this stuff to give to the rescue workers on the bus. There were people of all ages and all races out cheering.
Man ANTHONY The main thing right now, people have to get on with their lives, which is hard to say and hard to do, considering what happened. But I guess that’s why we’re the United States of America. Heal we will.
Eyewitness JILL It’s weird. I am a passive person who doesn’t believe in war, and never did I think I would be for murder, but sometimes I catch myself wanting those SOBs to die. You know what I keep wishin’? I mean, I keep thinking about when my friend first told me, I mean, man, I wish, I just wish, wish I could go back to that one second when I just, I just didn’t believe him.
Marsha Pincus taught English in the Philadelphia School District for more than three decades and twice won Teacher of the Year honors. Most of her career was spent at Simon Gratz and Masterman High Schools. She was a founder of the organization Young Playwrights, and several of her students won national awards for their work. After retiring in 2011, she wrote a one-woman play called Chalkdust that is based on her experience as a white teacher of mostly African American students.