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The lessons taught about 9/11

India Meissel was in the middle of teaching a morning dual enrollment history class at Lakeland High School 20 years ago when a colleague of hers walked in and shared the news of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center.

She tried to carry on as normal, but the look on her face then, and throughout the day Sept. 11, 2001, as details emerged of the terrorist attack — as planes crashed into both towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, another slammed into the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C., and yet another crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania — that look on her face betrayed her.

When Phyllis Byrum learned what had happened, she was teaching at Nansemond River High School. It made her emotional, and still gets her that way reflecting on that day.

“It was very challenging that day,” said Byrum, who taught U.S. and Virginia government. “And I had a lot of students who had parents who worked at the Pentagon and in the military. They were very upset. It was stressful, and I won’t forget it. It brought us closer together because we went through that together.”

At different schools throughout the city, teachers and staff members focused especially on their colleagues who had loved ones deployed almost immediately, and their students who had parents in the military. They did this while managing their own emotions. For Meissel, she had a brother who was on a plane that morning, heightening her alarm over the events taking place.

In the moments after learning about the first plane striking the World Trade Center, she wrapped up a preview of her first unit, the interaction of English settlers, members of the Jamestown colony and the Native Americans and Africans.

She used her free block to go around the school and check on the American flags, because American Legion Post 57 was going to be giving the school new flags. Having been open for 11 years, the school was due for new flags.

She went into the library and found a TV to watch just in time to see the second plane crash into the World Trade Center.

“I couldn’t really stand to watch it more than about five minutes,” Meissel said, “because they kept showing it over and over.”

She didn’t know how she was reacting at the time, as she tried to focus on her job, but students at Lakeland that day later told her.

“Several students of mine, several years later when they would come back for homecoming said, ‘the look on your face that day was one that I won’t forget,’” Meissel said. “I must have been the person who told a massive chunk of the building what had happened because I was going from room to room, and I had this really strange look on my face.”

An assistant principal who also served as a history teacher began gathering all the TVs in the building and began putting them in the history classes.

“Throughout the rest of the day, I would say, at any given block there was at least two to three classes of students in probably every history classroom in this hallway,” Meissel said. “Everybody who had a TV set, there was probably 30 to 45 kids a block in each of those classes, and kids were trying to make sense of this. And, of course, we didn’t know at that time what had happened.”

Working through the shock of what happened, the focus shifted to those students and colleagues, especially ones connected to the military. Because Lakeland’s a little further west of the concentration of military bases in Hampton Roads, the area around the school was just starting to get more military families.

She said one teacher was visibly upset and others tried to calm her down. But she told them her husband had just called her and he had 30 minutes to get to Norfolk Naval Base to be deployed, as his ship was being sent to New York City. Another teacher whose husband was on a submarine had told her she wasn’t allowed to say where he was going.

“At that point, we started trying to figure out who we had that were military children, who did we have that were military spouses,” Meissel said, “so we could offer the support that we could offer for them.”

While feeling sensory overload and still stunned about what had happened, she couldn’t turn away whenever she saw the terrorist attacks on the TV screen.

“It was overload, and I guess you could say it was a little bit of PTSD at the end of the day,” Meissel said. “I had seen this so much. It’s like I didn’t want to watch TV anymore, but you were pretty much glued to it.”

And she had personal reasons to be glued to what was happening. Besides her brother being on a plane from Nashville to Richmond — a fact she didn’t know right away — she had relatives who were in buildings five and seven of the World Trade Center in New York City. But because they were running late that morning taking care of a cranky baby, they never made it to work.

Meissel’s mother, who lived in Cedar Point within sight of Newport News Shipbuilding and Norfolk Naval Base, told her of the heavy presence of planes flying overhead that morning. Meissel, who lives in Isle of Wight County near the James River Bridge, would, in the days after 9/11, see F-14 Tomcats “for days and days after” circling over the shipyard and naval base.

“While I was talking to her, she said, ‘I gotta go. Your brother’s on the phone,’” Meissel said.

Her mother called her back soon after, panicking.

The next words Meissel heard from her mother?

“Your brother’s in the air flying.”

That’s when Meissel placed a call to her aunt, who lived in Richmond, and offered to get him, but her aunt was already there. She also exchanged emails with her husband, a teacher in Chesapeake at the time, making sure each was OK.

The other thought Meissel had that day was a familiar one for many — she wanted to see her daughter, who at the time was 7 and attending Kilby Shores Elementary School.

“The thing I want to do right now,” she told her husband, “is to get to Kilby Shores and pick up our daughter and just go home. I just remember that, all day, I just wanted to go to Kilby Shores and hug my child.”

After 9/11, educators had to transition into teaching about the day and events, and work to provide context as facts emerged and other events connected to the day took place.

“We had to address a lot of the unknown,” Meissel said. “The men that got on the planes were, for the most part, Saudi Arabians. So, there were the general questions of, well, why aren’t we responding to them? We didn’t attack Saudi Arabia, and so you have to go into a whole lot of the politics of the region as best you can, without really knowing — I didn’t particularly know why we weren’t bombing Saudi Arabia.”

Meissel said teachers did not know enough to be definitive in their teaching, so they had to be careful in how they taught about it.

“Kids were still frightened in some regards, if that’s a good term to use,” Meissel said, “because we are sitting at the world’s largest naval base, and we had kids whose parents were deploying and were on readiness standards to deploy, and we had kids who were seniors who were committing themselves, whether it was 9/11-related or not, they were committing themselves to go into the military.”

It felt like a long time, though Meissel said it could have been days before she and other teachers felt like they had a clearer picture of what they knew while starting to put the events into context.

She said at Lakeland, teachers in the social studies department began putting it into their curriculum, even before the Virginia Department of Education said it needed to be in their standards of learning and they were required to commemorate it.

Byrum said while she was still teaching, she used 9/11 as a lesson to her students, and she used the TV in her classroom to show segments about the day to them.

“We would discuss it, and there was a lot of crying,” Byrum said. “We talked through things. We talked about a lot of things.

“I think it brought all the kids closer together because they shared a lot of things that we didn’t even know about in their lives. And the weeks after that was a difficult time. It changed a lot of things, for sure.”

Meissel still teaches about 9/11 either on the day or as close to the day as she can.

On Sept. 9 and Sept. 10, with two different groups of students, she taught about 9/11 to her students, as did her other colleagues. But she does not show them the more graphic images and videos from that day.

“We have so many people who have parents that are military, and they are concerned, worried … if their parents are deployed,” Meissel said. “We don’t need to overwhelm them and freak them out that something’s going to happen to their parents. We’ve had enough of that. So that’s why we try to stay away from the whole, ‘this could happen again,’ and (instead) talk about the humanity, and what we can do to better ourselves as citizens.”

She shared with them the ESPN video, “The Man with the Red Bandanna,” about Welles Crowther, a man who worked on the 104th floor of the South Tower and saved numerous people on Sept. 11. She uses his story as a way to call on her students to serve and help people.

“We’ve tried to teach the humanity,” Meissel said. “We’ve tried to teach, how can you take something that horrible and try to put a positive — if there is a positive — which is to teach the kids the Welles Crowther story. We try to teach the lessons that have come out of that story, as well as teach what happened because these kids now weren’t even born.”