School Climate & Safety

‘Oh My God, I Can’t Believe This’

By Kevin Bushweller — September 12, 2001 | Updated: September 09, 2021 7 min read
Pedestrians in lower Manhattan watch smoke billow from New York's World Trade Center on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001.
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Assistant Managing Editor Kevin Bushweller looks back at one of the most critical days of his career:

Everyone has those moments in life that shape their worldview. One of mine happened Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City.

I was visiting Fiorello H. La Guardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan’s Upper West Side working on a story about the psychological impact on teachers who are physically assaulted by students. I caught a ride from New Rochelle, N.Y., into the city with Laura Marks, a La Guardia physical education and health teacher who had been violently attacked by a student at a graduation ceremony a little over a year earlier.

As she drove her economy-size car toward the city and talked about her difficulties returning to the classroom, I scribbled her comments in a reporter’s notebook.

Soon, the city and the Twin Towers came into full view, and Marks pinched the threads of a favorite outfit she was wearing and said: “If anything bad happens today, I’ll burn this thing.”

After walking through the school’s metal detectors not long after that pledge, a school security officer told us a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. He wasn’t sure about the extent of the damage.

My memories of what happened next inside the school are etched in flashes: students leaning against hallway walls typing frantically into cellphones, a tearful boy asking someone what to do if you have only one parent and she works at the World Trade Center; somber but reassuring intercom updates from school administrators; and Marks and a few other teachers venturing up to the 8th floor of the building to catch a glimpse of the towers only to see that they were gone.

I also remember her husband Michael, a retired New York City English teacher, hugging her when she arrived home that evening and telling her that students at his former school, Stuyvesant High School, just blocks from the World Trade Center, saw people leaping to their deaths from tower offices. I listened to them talk and then sat down at their home computer to chronicle for Education Week what it was like to be in that school on that day, saddened by the realization, to me, that the world had suddenly become a much more volatile and uncertain place.

Continue reading for Bushweller’s account of what happened inside La Guardia High School on Sept. 11, 2001:

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, waiting to hear about lockers and get vision screenings. But the teenagers’ worried faces showed their thoughts were pinned on the historic disaster unfolding at the World Trade Center 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 the vision tests.

“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” at the Pentagon. Other students leaned forward, asking what he had 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 whispered, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this.”

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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 terrorists attacked the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

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 their 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 had to. 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.

In one 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 news.

But the underlying fears were everywhere. In a hallway, 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.

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.”

Ms. Marks tried to comfort the students in all her classes. During one class, 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.”

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 sipping 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

In one cramped room, students crowded around a computer near a window that looked out into the city. They were sending instant messages to friends and getting news updates from ABCNews.com.

Lisa Resuta, 18, who graduated from the school in June, had returned to take a dance class and was in the room trading e-mail messages with a friend on Staten Island. “I’m supposed to be at work at 3,” she wrote in an e-mail message to her friend, “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 teenagers could not go home even though the school day was over. Their parents could not come to get them. And most of the subway lines in the vicinity of the school were not operating. School administrators were making plans to keep La Guardia open all night if need be.

After the regular school day ended, David Arcos, 17, wandered into Ms. Marks’ spacious, high-ceilinged office because he heard a radio airing news reports. He knew his uncle had gone to work that day in a pizza shop near the top of one of the towers. But nobody had heard from him.

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

“I’m hoping my uncle’s in the hospital,” he said, shaking his head. “This is horrible. 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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A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2001 edition of Education Week as ‘Oh My God, I Can’t Believe This’

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