Forever After: New York City Teachers on 9/11
reviewed by Beverly Milner (Lee) Bisland - September 05, 2006
Title: Forever After: New York City Teachers on 9/11
Author(s): Teachers College Press with Maureen Grolnick
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807747157, Pages: 253, Year: 2006
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Forever After: New York City Teachers on 9/11 appears at a timely moment as the nation remembers the first anniversary of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the fifth anniversary of the attacks of September 11. The book is an eclectic mix of recollections of the attacks on the World Trade Center by New York City educators in the days, months, and years that followed. Many of the chapters are written by teachers and administrators in the New York City schools. One chapter is written by a third grade teacher whose school was in sight of the attacks and who led her students uptown to safety at another school. These students remained displaced for months in both their homes and school. Another account is written by the principal of a high school just south of the World Trade Center who made decisions on that day and led her students and teachers south towards Battery Park in lower Manhattan as the towers collapsed behind her and her own sister was trapped on the upper floors of the north tower. Some of the chapters are written by middle school and high school students. One of the students was in Stuyvesant High School in close proximity to the towers where the attacks and ensuing fire and devastation could clearly be seen. Another account is written by a student who is presently attending Stuyvesant but who was a middle school student farther uptown on the day of the attacks. Other chapters are written by or about Muslim teachers and students who were not in the immediate vicinity on the day of the attacks but dealt with other issues of fear and concern on and after September 11.
One of this books strengths is the discussion of not just September 11 itself, but what each teacher did afterwards to confront and comprehend such a catastrophic event. Some of the educational projects were extensive and some were more intimate and self-contained within an individual classroom. One chapter describes a mural project that brought together students from lower Manhattan who were directly affected by the attacks. Another extensive project was developed to help students of all ages develop inner preparedness. There is a striking difference between the descriptions of elementary school teachers activities with their students and the activities of high school teachers. As a former high school social studies teacher, and now a methods professor in an elementary education department in Queens, New York, I related specifically to the chapter by a young high school social studies teacher in midtown Manhattan. She describes an emphasis on the coverage of material and standardized tests at the end of the year with little time for digression, even to discuss such a traumatic event as the World Trade Center attacks. Additionally, the student from Stuyvesant High Schoolwho had to attend school in Brooklyn after the attacksspeaks of business as usual and academics rather than a chance to talk and search for answers after September 11. In contrast, the elementary teachers talked with their students, particularly during meeting time at the beginning of the school day. They wrote down what each student said and allowed them to draw and write. The very young children were allowed to play and repeatedly act out the events of that day.
Just as those of us who grew up in the 1960s remember vividly where we were and what we were doing when John F. Kennedy was assassinatedas my fathers generation remembered where they were and what they were doing when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurredAmericans everywhere will remember where they were on September 11 for the rest of their lives. For New Yorkers, the experiences were more immediate. If we didnt know someone in the twin towers, we knew someone that knew someone. All New Yorkers did not have the same experience, however, and this book clearly demonstrates that fact. Some of the stories describe how many ran for their lives while other individuals were further removed, either many blocks uptown, in the outer boroughs such as Brooklyn, or in the suburbs such as New Jersey. Those individuals who were further removed were able to comfort their students and had more time to worry about their immediate family and friends who were in lower Manhattan. I was part of this latter group at home on Long Island that morning. My clearest memory is of the blue sky and the vivid green grass and trees in my backyard. I stood for hours and watched the images on television, but I was far removed from the citys turmoil. I was able to call my oldest daughter at work on 38th Street in midtown Manhattan and assure myself that she was safe. I could reflect with relief that my middle daughter had just left a summer job in a building that bordered the World Trade Center and was back in college in upstate New York. The following weekend, my daughters and my niece and her friend, who were in school in Manhattan, came to my house and were all together. Like many of the teachers in this book, they needed to be away from the city and the turmoil for awhile.
A book such as this one is important for many reasons. It adds to the narrative of how individuals experienced the events of that terrible day. Additionally, it focuses on teachers who had responsibilities beyond their own well-being in the middle of catastrophic events. As many of the teachers said, only when they no longer had the children and their comfort and safety to focus on did they think of themselves and their own emotions. The discussions in this book add to the historical record but they also further the understanding of what happened that day and in the time afterward. Just as I have difficulty relating in a visceral and immediate manner to the devastation and displacement caused by the hurricane and subsequent flooding of New Orleans, it may be difficult for individuals outside of New York City to understand fully the events of September 11 and their effect on the people who were there. This book takes the stories of a diverse group of educators and helps to begin to make sense out of a day that made no sense.