This is an edit of a piece I published a year back. Names have been changed.
I did not, any more than most of you, suffer on that morning, and well less than some of you. Suffer is too strong a word, for me. No one I immediately knew was in the towers, on the planes. I don't for a moment see myself in the emotional pool of people who knew them, loved them.
I did have an uexpected, wrenching job to do that morning, as many of you may well have. It abides.
Tuesday early mornings I'd set aside for a weekly meeting with my guidance people on our 700-student independent school here in DC's northwest Maryland suburbs. The eighty-acre campus welcomes students from eight through eighteen, our middle school then perhaps 175 children, housed in a venerable stone and brick two-story building, solid, yet warmly inviting.
The Georgian architecture, the elaborate jungle gyms, the lawns, the lacrosse fields and the ball diamonds, the overall stateliness of the place greeted me that morning as it had every morning since I'd begun there a month before; even the crisp air and beautiful azure-sky felt welcoming.
It was a trick.
Fifteen minutes into my weekly guidance meeting, Tamar called to tell me of the initial attacks. I thanked her, told her I loved her, that I'd be home when it made sense to be home, that I'd be in touch throughout the day, that Graham's school would keep children safe (did I know that?). I told my guidance people who then rushed from the room. There would be frightened children to see and none of us knew how fast nor how many.
We were, luckily, twenty minutes from our weekly all-school meeting at the gymnasium so I walked over and met the headmaster as I turned a footpath corner. The athletic director had his television on in an otherwise unsettlingly quiet, enormous, empty space. The headmaster asked me to remain on the gym floor to see to any students who might arrive early. He came out from the AD's office quickly though and told me about the Pentagon, twenty-some minutes south. He said, calmly, "Jon, our country's under attack."
There were students arriving now who had fathers and mothers, uncles, aunts, and older siblings working in New York, on Wall Street and elsewhere. Some commuted, even from Washington. Others were in New York just one or two days each week. There were students who had relatives at the Pentagon as well. Once the latest attack was news cell phones began beeping throughout our abbreviated assembly. We dismissed rather quickly after asking student-drivers not to leave campus without reporting to the upper school director and announcing that parents coming early for kids would be asked, at the division building doors, to check students out at division offices. In fact, very few parents came for their children early and the student drivers, most of them, apparently felt better on campus in one anothers' company.
After arriving back at my office I visited most classrooms, having instructed teachers to turn televisions off by 11:00. There was, we knew, no new news to be had that our children would need, just an endless horrifying fiery loop-tape. Talk was encouraged; watching that over and again was unnecessary.
The headmaster's call came as I got to my desk. "Jon, in ten minutes Mrs. Goldman and her rabbi will be at your office. The twins' dad was on the plane at the Pentagon. Good luck. Bad, bad day, Jon." He hung up. The twins were Ricky and Saul, sixth graders.
I cued my secretary to what was about to happen, saying that I'd be asking her to collect the twins from class. Molly was a sturdy woman with years and years in private school staff work. She'd seen tons, but not this. No one had. She cried, took hold of herself, and said, "I'm alright, Jon." I'd known Molly just a month but I walked around her desk and hugged her hard. "You look calm, Jon. Stay that way, please," Molly said. I remember asking myself if I was as calm as I seemed. Whatever my affect, I know I was roiling inside.
Molly announced the rabbi a few minutes later and he led in Mrs. Goldman and a woman who turned out to be a close friend. Mrs. Goldman's self-possession was astonishing and immediately apparent. She spoke as she sat. She said that her husband took that flight from Dulles once each month. What she wanted, now, was to be present when her boys were told.
I stepped out and asked Molly to get the boys. They'd know, we all knew, as soon as they were called for (if they hadn't known inside themselves already) but we decided it would be worse were any of us to go to accompany Molly. Ricky and Saul came a few moments on and started crying, though softly, as soon as they saw their mom and their rabbi. No one spoke for half a minute; Mrs Goldman stroked her sons' hair and knees. She held their hands. Her eyes said all that needed to be.
The rabbi, nonetheless, looked at me, nodding. I said, "Boys, as you've realized, your dad was on that plane. We are all so sorry." They cried and cried. They moaned and buried their heads in their mom's chest. They'd seen their dad that morning. He'd hugged them good-bye. He was off to Dulles and they were off to school. The rabbi stood and placed his arm around Mrs. Goldman's shoulders, bent down and whispered to the boys.
When, in twenty minutes or so, they left, I did one more classroom-round and told teachers what had happened. I trusted all of them to handle our horrid news with grace. I did not think it made sense to try to keep this from students when the middle school grapevine is, as you know, more effective than any formal adult announcement. At the next class-change, Molly collected the boys' books from their classrooms.
I called Tamar. She seemed ok. I called my son's middle school and after four tries, got through. All the kids were fine.
Later, on my way home, after my faculty and I met parents in the parking lots, I drove as I always did by a government-owned conference center, ostensibly a postal worker training facility on the grounds of a gorgeous, beige stone former monastery. Two black SUVs were parked where the road met its incredibly long, snaky driveway. Two black-suited agents in shades, a man and a woman holding automatic rifles, stood by.
At home, Tamar, Graham, and I sat on a soft couch. We held him and we all slept on that couch 'til long, long after dark.