Sunday, September 25, 2011

You know New York, You need New York... know you need unique New York...

So goes one of my favorite tongue twister warm-ups when I teach acting.

Seven years ago, I had the excellent fortune of teaching at an amazing school on Manhattan's Upper East Side. I was assigned a banged-up group of juniors with a terrible reputation for being difficult, unruly, and just generally annoying. Not only did I have the joy of teaching all of these juniors Brit Lit, I also had to teach them Speech. Plus I had a junior advisory group. I couldn't escape.

I forged through the year, determined to keep my head above water, and forced myself to like them. But a funny thing happened on the way to June...I fell in love with them. They just barged on in to my heart and made themselves at home. I came to know each of them, quirks and all, and just enjoy them immensely. Together, we marched through "Macbeth," built houses in Kentucky, West Virginia and Belize, served together in Camden, laughed together in the Commons, and cried together on retreats. I also managed to guilt many of them into taking a risk and performing onstage for the first time. And by the time graduation came two years later, they chose to dedicate their yearbook to me--still one of the greatest honors I have EVER received as a teacher.

So when an invitation to their 5-year reunion appeared in the mail, NR and I decided to return to the Big Apple--our first time back there together in several years. We booked our Bolt Bus tickets, left the kids with the grandparents, and scored a stay with a Jesuit friend of ours who lives around the corner from Carnegie Hall.

He urged us to walk up to the reunion. "Thirty blocks!?" I balked and whined, hoping for a taxi. But my frugal beloved pointed out what a nice night it was, so off we went.

And it was nice. Our favorite part was strolling through the Mall in Central Park--a place we had never gone. In fact, we realized how many "New York" things we had never done in the NINE years we worked up there. State of Liberty, Shake Shack, skating in Wollman Rink...oh, we did our share of touristy stuff during our JV years, but it petered out once we started working for real. Because, honestly, who wanted to wander through the Met when you had a stack of papers to grade in your tote bag? Who wanted to ride the swans when we had grocery shopping to do?

So it was a real treat to just savor and enjoy a city that has meant so much to us.

As we wandered through the Mall together--no tote bags or kids in tow, no chores hanging over our heads--we passed by several wedding parties having their picture taken. As we approach our ninth anniversary, it was a beautiful reminder of all we've been through together...and where it all began.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ten Years Ago.

What a decade it's been.

This anniversary is always a tough one. For years, I was in New York on September 11, so the entire city took on a tone of haunted reverence and quiet thanksgiving. We all took a collective deep breath together, it seemed.

Now I'm in PA. And while people are certainly reflective and reverent, it's a little different. (For example, my school puts up a huge memorial in the cafeteria with giant photos of the towers in flames, Fr. Judge being carried from the ashes, etc. For me, it's too much. It's too painful.)

So I'll just share my story here, for those of you who read this.

On Friday, 9/7/01, I took the "E" train down to the WTC as I often did after school. I bought myself a smoothie and glanced up at those two testaments to capitalism--catching myself, as I often did in my early twenties, having a "New York" moment. Feeling like an ant, but like an ant that counted in the great scheme of things. I was here. I was doing it. Frank Sinatra would be proud.

The next night, my roommates and I went out to toast a new job. As we walked towards the Jersey City waterfront, we gazed in awe. "Look at the Twin Towers," Amanda sighed. "I mean, we live here! Can you believe it?"

That was the last time we would ever see them.

Tuesday morning dawned bright and sunny--a perfectly gorgeous day. As I stood in the Grove Street PATH station, the WTC train pulled up. It was packed to the gills. I usually got a seat on the 33rd Street train, so I opted to wait. This was at 7:45 a.m.

When I arrived at school (56th & 1st), my colleagues were marching in a circle holding picket signs. "Oh crap," I thought. "Here we go." Our union, the Lay Faculty Association, had finally decided to go on strike. I joined in with my friends and started thinking about how to rearrange my lessons for the week. My freshmen were starting that day, so I felt a little bad for them. What a way to start high school!

Pretty soon, news reporters started arriving to cover the strike. The girls were hanging out the windows, cheering us on and throwing down Starbursts. One of the Spanish teachers started singing, "Pagame, pagame mucho..."

One of the reporters got a call while she was interviewing us. I heard something about "World Trade Center" and "plane." As quickly as the newspeople arrived, they vanished.

"World Trade Center," another teacher said. "My husband has a meeting down there this morning."

I saw our union liaison, Vinny, pacing and talking on his cell. He looked up, his face ashen. He summoned us over. "A plane went into the World Trade Center. The Pentagon has also been hit. They think there's another one heading for the White House."

I started panting. Like a dog. My mind couldn't process it. Were we under attack? My lungs couldn't fill up with enough air--I just kept panting and gasping.

Our principal came out and asked us to put down our picket signs. "We need your help inside," she explained. Without a word, we threw down the signs and entered the building.

I went up to my classroom. A handful of girls were watching "The Net," starring Sandra Bullock, while a stranger sat at my desk. They had no idea.

The upperclassmen, however, must have gotten wind. Within minutes, chaos erupted in the halls. The bell rang to switch classes, and only a few girls came into my room. "Ladies, let's pray, okay? There...was an accident downtown...a plane hit...the towers...and we think it was on purpose."

They stared at me. I stared back, and then started the Sign of the Cross. What the hell else could I do?

Out in the hallways, sobbing and screaming. I looked outside. Jeff, one of my colleagues was racing towards the stairs. "What's happening?" I yelled. He stared at me. "The towers. They're gone."

I stared back. "What?"

"Gone. Fallen."

The panting started again. Gone? I had just seen them two days ago.

My students, overhearing, asked if they could call home. "Of course," I said, and let them go to the office (where, of course, everyone was running.)

Downtown. Nick was downtown. On the Lower East Side, but still...

I ran down the hall to where I knew one of the Holy Child girls would be. Holy Child was the sister school of Nativity, where Nick taught, and several of the graduates came to Cathedral for high school (where I taught.) My plan was to gather those girls and bring them downtown, since I knew where they lived. (Remember, these were the days before emergency evacuation plans. We had never counted on this.)

The first classroom I entered was full of freshmen. Some idiot substitute had turned on the television, which was just a screen of smoke. I looked away and told her I was taking some of the girls home.

"Um, who ARE you?" she asked snidely.

"I'm their teacher."

"Oh, one of the teachers ON STRIKE?"

I pushed past her and beckoned to the girls. They followed me, and together we found their classmates. "Miss, what are we doing?"

"Going home."


Before we left, I stopped into the finance office to call Nativity. A math teacher had just hung up with her brother, who worked in the towers. She was sobbing uncontrollably. "He said...people were jumping out of windows...I told him to go home, just go home..."

We went outside. For some reason I thought we could catch the M15 bus. But once we started walking, it became clear we would be doing just that for a long time.

Straight down 1st Avenue, in the middle of the brilliant blue sky (God, it was a gorgeous day), we saw a large cloud of black smoke.

"Miss, what's that?"

"Um...I think it's a steam cloud or something. Hey, do you girls want to get a soda?"

We went into a little pizza shop and I bought the girls some Cokes. We chatted about their summer, how excited they were for high school, which Nativity boys they thought were cute. To this day, I am so thankful for these girls and the selfish distraction they provided me with. I had no time to freak out or panic. I had to be Miss Kelly.

Somewhere in the twenties, my old high school friend Dan came out of a pub. It was a truly bizarre, random meetup. We hugged and delighted in the happy coincidence. The girls giggled and said they were going to tell Nick. I haven't seen him since.

The further downtown we got, the more our awareness of what had happened grew. SWAT teams grew in number. People walked by us covered in ash and clutching masks. Police barricades started blocking the streets. I continued to distract the girls (and myself) by asking about their families and where they lived.

Around Thompson Square Park, where most of the girls lived, we parted ways. I finally made my way to Nativity, and Nick. The boys had all gone home.

We went back to his apartment on 4th Street. His roommates were gathered in the common room, watching the coverage on TV. Until then, I really had no idea what had happened. I swore I was watching an action movie. This couldn't be real.

Exhausted, I took a nap while Nick and his roommates went to donate blood. I woke up, vaguely remembering this horrific nightmare I'd had. Then I smelled the smoke. And that's when the tears started.

Nick had returned. The hospitals didn't need any blood. We thought that was great news at the time. It wasn't.

That night, we went up on the roof. No sounds but sirens. Horribly eerie for the city that never slept.

Two days later, we returned to work. By that point, the photos of missing people had started appearing in subway stations, on walls of hospitals, throughout the entire city. Within a few weeks, they would turn into memorials.

My faculty gathered in the theater before school to figure out what to do. We were shaken to the core, terrified, and heartbroken. How could we face our students? So many of them had lost family, friends, and neighbors. What could we do?

Teach, as it turns out.

My first period was senior Drama. The girls entered somberly, sat down, and stared at me expectantly.

I took a deep breath. "Okay, ladies. I'm going to give you a choice. If you need to talk, debrief, or just collect your thoughts, we can. Or, I have a whole lesson prepared on Classical Greek Drama. Your choice."

After a pause, one of the girls said, "I don't know about everyone else, but if I talk or think about it one more second, I'll go crazy. Let's just get on with it."

Another girl said, "Yeah, let's just learn something."

And so we did.

God, did we ever learn something.