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.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

See Also

Illustration of students and a teacher.
DigitalVision Vectors
School Climate & Safety The Return of Laura Marks
Kevin Bushweller, November 14, 2001
22 min read

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.”

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2001 edition of Education Week as ‘Oh My God, I Can’t Believe This’

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Profession Webinar
Professional Wellness Strategies to Enhance Student Learning and Live Your Best Life
Reduce educator burnout with research-affirmed daily routines and strategies that enhance achievement of educators and students alike. 
Content provided by Solution Tree
English-Language Learners Webinar The Science of Reading and Multilingual Learners: What Educators Need to Know
Join experts in reading science and multilingual literacy to discuss what the latest research means for multilingual learners in classrooms adopting a science of reading-based approach.
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety A Sheriff Is Putting AR-15s in Every School. What Safety Experts Have to Say
The Madison County, N.C., school district made headlines for placing assault rifles in SRO offices ahead of the new school year.
6 min read
AR-15-style rifles are on display at Burbank Ammo & Guns in Burbank, Calif., June 23, 2022. Gun manufacturers have made more than $1 billion from selling AR-15-style guns over the past decade, and for two companies those revenues have tripled over the last three years, a House investigation unveiled Wednesday, July 27, found.
AR-15-style rifles are on display at gun store in Burbank, Calif. School safety experts say it's not unheard of for school districts to place such weapons in schools, but it requires serious consideration of the potential risks.
Jae C. Hong/AP
School Climate & Safety 3 Reasons Many Schools Don't Have Classroom Doors That Lock From the Inside
School facilities experts explain why what seems like a simple school-security is not so simple.
2 min read
A section of a classroom door from Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, is seen as Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw testifies at a Texas Senate hearing at the state capitol, Tuesday, June 21, 2022, in Austin, Texas. Two teachers and 19 students were killed in the mass shooting in Uvalde.
A section of a classroom door from Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, is seen during a Texas Senate hearing on the deadly shooting there.
Eric Gay/AP
School Climate & Safety Alex Jones Ordered to Pay $45.2M More Over Sandy Hook Lies
A Texas jury has ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay $45.2 million, adding to the $4.1 million he already has to pay.
6 min read
Alex Jones attempts to answer questions during a trial at the Travis County Courthouse in Austin on Aug. 3.
Alex Jones attempts to answer questions during a trial at the Travis County Courthouse in Austin on Aug. 3.
Briana Sanchez/Austin American-Statesman via AP
School Climate & Safety Opinion How Do We Collaborate When Tensions Are Running High?
Conflict is all around us these days, but don't despair. Education and DEI leaders offer their ideas to foster collaboration.
Sean Slade
5 min read
Screen Shot 2022 07 24 at 3.15.30 PM
Shutterstock