N.Y.C. High School Spends Anxious, Surreal Day

By Kevin Bushweller — September 19, 2001 8 min read
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ITH I.D.--->

‘What do you do if you only have one parent and she works at the World Trade Tower?’

Student, La Guardia High School of Art and Music
and Performing Arts

On a day that would alter their perceptions of the world forever, anxious students were gathered on gymnasium bleachers at the La Guardia High School of Art and Music and Performing Arts. They were there for gym class to hear about lockers and get vision screenings. But the teenagers’ worried faces showed their thoughts were pinned on the historic disaster unfolding five miles away.

Willie Caban, a senior sporting a Walkman radio, suddenly ran up to a table near the bleachers where Laura Marks, a physical education and health teacher, was conducting vision screenings.

“It was terrorists,” Mr. Caban yelled.

Shortly after, the 17-year-old sat in the bleachers, his eyes fixed, his brow furrowed, trying to concentrate on the news. He pulled the earphones off his head, stood up and yelled, “The building fell!” Moments later, a boy sitting at the bottom of the bleachers told Ms. Marks of “explosions” in the Pentagon. Other students leaned forward, asking what he said.

Ms. Marks turned her face away from the students for a moment, her eyes welling up. Decked out in a festive purple-and-blue tunic and pants, the tall 51-year old woman quietly whispered under her breath, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this.”

A reporter from Education Week, on an unrelated assignment, was visiting the 2,500-student magnet high school in the Upper West Side of Manhattan on Sept. 11, the day the twin towers of the World Trade Center were attacked by terrorists.

The atmosphere in the school was awash in worry. Students leaned against walls in the hallways and frantically tapped numbers into their cellphones. But the calls did not go through at first. Some students had tears streaming down their cheeks. Others covered their faces with hands or simply looked bewildered.

Daniel Muniz, 16, a musical-instrument bag over his shoulder, wandered up to Ms. Marks in the gym and whispered. She told him to do what he needed. Later, he returned to the bleachers, grim-faced.

His grandmother was working in one of the towers that day, and nobody had heard from her. Mr. Muniz, an anxious tone in his voice, said, “I called my mother, and she was crying hysterically.”

Life Went On

Yet in a strange, almost surreal way, life went on at La Guardia High School, even while world attention was fixed on the scenes of catastrophe in lower Manhattan. Students were told to continue reporting to their classes. In some, they went through the motions, at least, of trying to get done what was supposed to be completed that day.

Ms. Marks, for one, took attendance and conducted vision screenings for the better part of the day, each student holding an index card over an eye while reading letters on a wall chart. Ms. Marks checked off their forms, asking some teenagers who had trouble reading the letters if they had been to the eye doctor recently.

Students' worried faces showed their thoughts were pinned on the historic disaster unfolding just a few miles away.

In another room, well after news of the disaster had circulated, boys and girls dressed in black tights bounded diagonally across a hardwood floor, scissor-kicking for a ballet class. Some were smiling, their thoughts seemingly diverted from the day’s news.

But the underlying fears of the day were everywhere. A muscular boy asked Ms. Marks, “What do you do if you only have one parent and she works at the World Trade Tower?” Tears began falling from the boy’s eyes. A girl nearby comforted him.

“That’s going to haunt me until I know his mother is OK,” Ms. Marks confided. In a later health class, a boy told her in a frightened tone, “I used to live there.”

“Where?” Ms. Marks asked.

“Across the street from the World Trade,” the boy said.

Ms. Marks was silent.

A boy sitting on a desk clutching a cellphone simply said of the events, ‘This is weird, man.’

In the same class, a boy sitting on a desk clutching a cellphone simply said of the events, “This is weird, man.” His cellphone rang shortly after, and he stepped into the hallway to talk to his brother.

Upon returning, the boy offered his phone to Ms. Marks so she could call her husband, Michael Marks, at their suburban home in New Rochelle, N.Y. She stepped into the hallway. Mr. Marks, a former English teacher at Stuyvesant High School, a few blocks from the World Trade Center, told her their son had called from his North Carolina college to see how she was. “Michael, we’re OK,” she said in a cracking voice. “I’ll call you if I can. I’m OK. Don’t worry about me. I love you.”

Two girls in the classroom were told their parents had arrived at the school. They hurried out of the room.

Allaying Fears

School administrators—in a calm but somber tone—took to the public address system regularly, telling students that they were safe and that their friends in other city schools were safe, too. They told the students to continue attending class and encouraged them to seek the help of crisis counselors in the school if they needed someone to talk to.

“This is a terrible time for New York City and our country,” Principal Paul Saronson announced over the PA system. “We will do what we need to do to keep our school safe and secure.”

Meanwhile, a stream of news reports from radios and televisions could be heard in many classrooms and offices. News came that the second tower was leaning, about to collapse. Around that time, some teachers went up to the eighth floor to catch a glimpse of the towers. But they were gone. Plumes of smoke were rising slowly in the distance, just beyond the line of buildings on the horizon, creating an ominous outline against a clear blue sky.

In a strange, almost surreal way, life went on at La Guardia High School.

Later, a boy in one of Ms. Marks’ classes raised his hand. “I’d like to make an announcement,” he said. “All public transportation has been shut down.” Ms. Marks tried to comfort the students. In her distinctive Bronx accent, she told them: “Guys, New York is a crazy place. But the wonderful thing about New York is when bad things happen, New Yorkers come together. People do come together under these kinds of times. Don’t worry.”

She turned the conversation to weight training, asking them questions about proper techniques. Strangely enough, the students responded, even the boy who was worried about his grandmother. Later, the teacher said, “I have never been in the gym with so many kids when it was that quiet.”

Veronica “Ronnie” Koochagian, another physical education and health teacher, said she told her students, to reassure them: “La Guardia [high school] may be important to you. But it’s not important to the terrorists.” Only later, when no students were nearby, she confessed, “This sure is scary.”

A teacher wandered into Ms. Marks and Ms. Koochagian’s office. She had heard the latest news about a plane that was apparently hijacked and crashed near Pittsburgh. “This is incomprehensible,” she said, shaking her head.

Between classes, Ms. Marks left the building and walked to Broadway to buy an iced coffee, in hopes of cutting the edge off the stress. People were dining at the sidewalk tables of city cafes. Some were drinking wine. To an outsider, the scene had a strange sense of normalcy.

But Ms. Marks knew the scene was far from normal. “Look at this,” she said. “I’ve never seen so many people walking uptown at this hour,” as a river of people, like refugees, streamed by from the direction of the disaster.

As she headed back to the school, Ms. Marks noticed that the courtyards of Lincoln Center, which is right next to La Guardia and has been a graduation spot in recent years, were closed off to visitors, gates blocking the way and a police officer standing guard.

Nowhere to Go

Back in the school, students crowded around a computer in a cramped room with a window that looked out into the city. They were sending instant messages to friends and getting news updates from In an adjacent room, students sat on the floor listening to radio reports. As the day wore on, the nervous excitement of disaster faded into an almost somber acceptance of it all.

Lisa Resuta, 18, who graduated from the school this past June, was in the room to take a dance class. She was trading e-mail messages with a friend on Staten Island. “I’m supposed to be at work at 3,” she said, “and I’m afraid to get on [the trains] anyway.”

A Spanish-speaking man wandered into the room, holding his driver’s license in his palm and showing it to people. His face puckered with distress, he struggled to communicate with the reporter. A Hispanic girl stepped in and served as a translator. She learned the man had come to pick up his son. He was led away to find the boy.

Some hours after school started, parents began arriving in the school’s lobby to pick up their children. But some teenagers could not go home even though the school day was over. Their parents could not come to get them. And the subway system was not operating. School officials were making plans to keep La Guardia open all night if need be.

David Arcos, 17, wandered into Ms. Marks and Ms. Koochagian’s room because he heard a radio airing news reports. He was worried about his uncle. When the senior was in a La Guardia High restroom that morning, another boy had come in and said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. “I said, ‘c’mon,’ ” Mr. Arcos said. He thought the boy was joking.

But when Mr. Arcos reached the third floor of the school, he noticed students fixed on a television set showing billowing smoke. A chorus of police, fire, and ambulance sirens began to scream on the streets outside the school’s protective walls. And that’s when he thought of his uncle.

He knew his uncle had gone to work that day in a pizza shop near the top of one of the Towers. “When I saw it on TV, it was a complete shock,” the student said.

He knew his uncle’s cellphone number. He called, but many calls were unanswered. Finally, Mr. Arcos got through, and a co-worker of his uncle’s answered. The co-worker was in the hospital, being treated for injuries. The youth’s uncle, however, had taken an elevator to a lower part of the building to make a delivery just before the plane struck.

Mr. Arcos, the key to his Queens home hanging on a silver necklace over his blue sweater, slouched in a chair in Ms. Marks’ office.

“I’m hoping my uncle’s in the hospital,” he said, shaking his head. “This is horrible. It’s strange. You look outside, and it looks like a normal day. But everyone is thinking about the same thing. I’m gonna have the worst nightmares going to sleep tonight.”


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