Elisa Hoffman was one of the founding teachers at Edison-Friendship Public Charter School, Woodridge Campus in Washington, D.C. (where she was on 9/11).
On September 11, 2001, I was in my classroom teaching reading to twelve wiggly, yet incredibly attentive six-year-olds. It was a gorgeous day and the sun was pouring in through the windows when Ms. Fox, the teacher I shared my space with, came in and motioned for me to join her by the door.
“Face me,” she said. “Turn your back to your kids.” I followed her directions. “A plane just flew into one of the World Trade Center Towers.”
“On purpose?” I asked. It seemed like a very logical question at the time.
“No one knows,” she said, “But they think so.”
My mind began spinning, mentally cataloguing the friends and family who lived in New York City. Who worked at the World Trade Center? Had they made it to work yet? Ms. Fox interrupted my thoughts.
“Are you okay? Can you keep teaching?” she asked.
“I think I have to, right?” I walked back in front of my class.
A few minutes later, Ms. Fox returned. “Another plane hit the other Tower.” She paused. “And, a plane hit the Pentagon.”
This time she didn’t have to ask if I could keep teaching. I was standing in front of my class in Northeast Washington, D.C.
* * *
A school assembly was called and I took my kids down to the cafetorium. When I walked in, it wasn’t the place I knew. Usually filled with the sounds and activity of 250 small children, on this day everything seemed muted, as if every movement and conversation was happening underwater.
Instead of the orderly distribution of children by homeroom teacher that I was used to, kids were gravitating to each other like magnets—older siblings finding younger siblings, the younger ones in the older ones’ laps. It was the very beginning of the school year so kids who had spent kindergarten, first, and second grade together but had been separated into different homerooms for third grade were finding each other, knowing who they needed to be with. They linked arms and sat four and five across, heads on each others’ shoulders. And then I saw Demetrius. Physically, he was one of the biggest kids in our school and he often had an attitude that matched. His teacher sat cross-legged on the ground and there he was in her lap, his cornrows making tracks across his head and his tears making tracks down his cheeks.
I was watching Demetrius when our principal, Mrs. Canty, walked to the front of the room and said, simply, “A plane hit the Pentagon but we are safe. I want you all to say it with me: We Are Safe.”
We repeated it—We are safe.
“Again, WE are safe.”
So again, we said it—WE are safe.
“One more time. We. Are. Safe.” And that’s all she said before opening the floor for questions.
The first question came quickly—Did people die? Mrs. Canty looked right at our children and with 100% honesty answered, “Yes. When a plane hits a building, people die. And we don’t know who and we don’t know how many but yes, people died.”
And then the next question came, the one that every person in the room had been thinking about since the moment we heard the news—“Did anyone’s parents die?” Mrs. Canty answered, “We don’t know. But if they did, then those kids will need us to be the best friends that we can be and to love them and support them. But right now, we don’t know that anyone’s parents died so let’s not worry about that yet.”
Mrs. Canty took questions until every little hand in the room was down, and only then did she say, “Let’s all go back to our homerooms and wait for your parents. I’m sure they are on their way to get you.”
Since I didn’t have a homeroom that year, I headed straight for the office. I had to do something to help. I’d been at our school since we’d opened and knew every child and every parent. I could imagine how much our parents wanted to get to their children, and if they didn’t have to stop and tell someone who they were there to pick up, if I could help reunite them with their children even ten seconds faster, then I would be doing something.
And so that’s what I did. For hours on end I greeted parents and buzzed homerooms until the last student was reunited with his parents. It wasn’t much, it certainly wasn’t heroic, but it was what I could do for the kids and families that I had come to know so well and care about so much.
Growing up, I remember my parents saying that every person from their generation could tell you where they were when President Kennedy was killed, or when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. September 11th was our generation’s place. And for me that place is in my classroom in Northeast D.C. teaching reading to twelve wiggly yet incredibly attentive six-year-olds.
A proud member of the 1996 Mississippi Delta Corps, Elisa Hoffman was one of the founding teachers at Edison-Friendship Public Charter School, Woodridge Campus in Washington, D.C., where she taught for 5 years. She currently lives in Cincinnati, OH with her husband and twin three-year-olds and just celebrated her 9th anniversary on staff at Teach For America.