On 9/11, I didn’t get to go home early.
How distant tragedy affects the individual.
Early on in my teaching career, a crow flew into my classroom. It perched on a vacant seat and, facing forward, cocked its head as if to listen to my hesitant explanation of the difference between a homophone and a synonym. More surprising than the bird, some terrible symbol surely, was the kids’ lack of alarm.
‘Put your arm out,’ called one.
I told the class to remain calm, my voice breaking. The bird hopped along the back brace of its chair but did not scare. I did as the kid suggested, approaching the crow with my forearm stretched in a perfectly horizontal line. It wasn’t shaking.
The bird jumped, a slight flutter of its brittle wings, to land at my elbow. It was heavier than I’d expected. My arm dropped as I tensed insignificant muscles to bear the weight. Only the thin fabric of my white work shirt protected my skin from its claws.
The thing smelt of soil, I remember.
Kids are sensitive to weakness. Although, to my mind, I hesitated only briefly, it was enough for a giggle to ripple across the classroom. And the pause was sufficient to provoke another kid, different from the first, to call -
‘Take it to the window!’
I did. I reached the sill. With the bird remaining on my arm. And I extended the arm, trembling with muscles complaining of the bird’s weight. At the window, fresh air and blue, cloudless sky, I flapped. The bird, silently, flew away.
‘There’s an old woman,’ I was told. ‘She keeps the birds as pets.’
I returned to my desk, thinking how they’d never mentioned crows in teacher training.
I was 21 and, hungover from university, my inclination was to drink or to sleep. I was closer to the age of my students than to my teaching colleagues. But coping with invasive wildlife wasn’t the most challenging aspect of the job. Nor, would you believe it, was controlling 13 year-olds inclined to throw classroom furniture out of the window.
Specifically — having conversation with the English department. It felt uncannily adult. They spoke of house prices and DIY, occasionally condescending to inquire after my weekend plans. Generally, I would nibble at stale sandwiches stolen from the school canteen. The others, the grownups, ate salads that shone as the very beacons of adulthood.
On September 11th, I received a text message as lunchtime ended. Finding bravery in the relief of approaching freedom, I broke into the department’s conversation about how useless the police were when it came to dealing with graffiti, to let my colleagues know that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Centre. I imagined a single-seater bi-plane. I imagined a generic New York skyscraper.
People muttered ‘how terrible’, but I could see their eyes on my mobile phone. They were more outraged that I’d been checking my phone during their lunchtime conversation. How long had I had it out?
To those over 40, mobile phones, in 2001, were still a novelty or, more specifically, evidence of society’s sliding morality. I remember telling my Dad that I’d bought a mobile phone to enable people to contact me regardless of where I might be.
‘Why’d you want that?’ he’d asked.
I taught that afternoon. Of Mice and Men. Only the library had the Internet. My phone’s most sophisticated feature was ‘Snake’. They had BBC1 playing on the sixth-form common room’s TV. Images of the north tower collapsing, the dust clouds blossoming through Manhattan streets.
After school, football practice was scheduled. I thought to explain to the kids the full tragedy of the day. I was a teacher, after all. By now, it was evident that thousands had died. I thought, even though they were 14-year olds, that the children might be sufficiently distressed that I could cancel the training session and go home early.
We stood on the grass. It had been a wet autumn, the pitch shone with green. I described what I knew. I used my ‘adult’ voice, the serious one. The kids, in a huddle as if I were imparting half-time tactical advice, looked on with sullen expressions. When I finished, a single child raised his hand.
‘Sir?’ he said. ‘We still get to play football, right?’
I said we would. The kids smiled, slapped palms. I could still end the session ten minutes early. That’d be fair enough.
Later, my flatmate and I ate pizza as the TV presented images of utter horror. And when I think back to 9/11, to the day we’re told changed the world, I remember my disappointment at having to go through with Year 8 football practice.
The next day there was a whole-school assembly. A teacher who’d recently holidayed in New York City spoke about how terrible the events had been, even though, she said, she’d not been to that end of Manhattan as it was where all the bankers worked, a bit like the City of London. The kids fidgeted as I thought about my first lesson of the day.
And soon, quicker than you’d think possible, it was the first anniversary of 9/11.