As we move further away from Sept. 11, a new and unexpected concern begins to emerge_not that everything has changed, but that nothing has changed.
I'm having anxiety dreams these days. Not the kind I usually have as a school superintendent—the ones filled with angry taxpayers or school bus accidents or poor test grades printed in the local paper. These are different.
The first entailed looking for my car in an enormous parking lot near the ocean. I search through row after row of white, late-model cars exactly like the one I think I rented. As I rack my brain to remember where I parked, the ship I am supposed to board slowly makes its way out to sea.
In another dream, I climb a long, wide flight of stairs to a platform high above the ground. As I reach the top, the stairs fall away and the platform begins to tilt. I stagger from side to side to keep my balance on the roiling floor so I am not pitched headlong into the abyss.
A psychologist I heard on a morning news program said that dreams like these are not unusual since the events of Sept. 11. "Anxiety" dreams, she called them—a subconscious expression of the trepidation we cannot allow to surface during our waking hours.
In yet another dream, I return to the classroom as a high school English teacher. Instead of a schoolroom, however, I have a desk on a busy street corner. My students are hanging over the walls of a high-rise parking garage. Waving a book in my hand and shouting over the traffic noises, I grill them about the short story they were to have read: "Who's the main character? Why is he important?" The students ignore me, yelling to one another on the different garage levels and to passersby instead.
"Listen!" I shriek. "You need to know this for the test!"
They look down at me with pity. Like that matters in their lives.
When I shared this dream with a friend who actually teaches high school English, she said it wasn't a dream. Except for the parking-garage part.
Government leaders and national news anchors keep reminding us that since Sept. 11, "everything has changed," but we're uncertain about what "everything" includes. Children in classrooms all over the country watched the planes fly into the twin towers again and again as current events on television superseded regular instruction. We are still not sure how much they understand. In truth, we're not sure how much we understand.
We are dealing with mixed messages about the importance of returning to our normal, daily lives while at the same time staying on "high alert" against further terrorist attacks. In school districts nationwide, officials struggle with myriad operational questions that now carry larger symbolic meaning. Should we allow the senior trip to New York City? Should we say the Pledge of Allegiance every day? Should we remind students to bring in $1 for the Afghan children? Should we lock all the doors except for the main one? Should we begin every concert with "God Bless America"?
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, some educators believed that the events of that day would surely have an impact on what was taught in schools in the future. Before we began dropping bombs on it, few students (or teachers) could locate Afghanistan on a map. In the traditional study of history and literature, the Middle East can be a footnote at best. French and Spanish are our most popular foreign languages in high school, and American military officials quickly felt their disadvantage in not understanding Arabic. The value of being able to problem-solve and apply knowledge to new situations became readily apparent in the postal scare. There were no multiple-choice questions on the anthrax exam, and one day's "credible evidence" turned out to be the next day's false report. Surprised and bewildered by the bioterrorism scare, investigators admitted with rare candor to "learning as we go along."
Infinitely harder than teaching about the language and geopolitics of the Middle East has been the charge from political and religious leaders to "teach tolerance" as well. Those who perpetrated the World Trade Center disaster deserve our righteous anger; those who merely look like the perpetrators do not. It is a distinction that some adults cannot yet make, but those charged with the education of children must make that difference absolutely clear. The subtleties of discrimination are not lost on children.
As we move further away from Sept. 11, however, a new and unexpected concern begins to emerge—not that everything has changed, but that nothing has changed in terms of schooling our children for the future.
Current events cannot be used as an excuse to abandon the goal of adequate funding for schools. The task of reforming state aid to make it equitable, predictable, and understandable lacks the compelling immediacy of the war against terrorism, but it cannot once again be pushed aside. Tweaking the curriculum for a couple of weeks to include a brief look at Islamic cultures will not provide the kind of understanding future generations will need. And the chronic rash of testing needs a salve.
We cannot, especially under the present circumstances, put off these concerns and others like them because, in the end, we know that public education remains the first and best hope for abiding freedom.
So each day brings another round of worries that manifest themselves at night for me in weirdly surreal renditions. In my waking moments, when children are looking to the adults in their lives for reassurance and guidance, I resolve not to falter. It is business as usual in our daily life at school: Books must be read, stories must be written, pictures must be drawn, and basketball games must be played. The children need this familiar routine, and so, for the moment, do I.
Suzanne Tingley is a school superintendent in Sackets Harbor, N.Y., and writes frequently on educational issues.
Vol. 21, Issue 20, Page 35Published in Print: January 30, 2002, as Anxiety Dreams