Janet Huger-Johnson has worked in New York City public schools for 32 years in multiple teaching and administrative roles. For the last seven years, she’s been the principal of East New York Elementary School of Excellence. But back on Sept. 11, 2001, she was a 5th grade teacher at P.S. 273 Wortman in Brooklyn, a school she also attended as a child.
Huger-Johnson told her story, including what she remembers of that fateful day and what that memory means to her 20 years later, to Education Week Staff Writer Ileana Najarro. Their interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
It was literally the beginning of the school year. My habit with my children in the morning was to have a circle time where we would sit and have conversations about what they did the night before, or just what they wanted to share. We were doing that, and in the middle of our conversation, there was a knock on my door.
I also served as my school’s [United Federation of Teachers] chapter leader, the union leader, so if things are going on in the building, one of the things that the principal always did was involve me in conversations. The [school] secretary came and she knocked on my door and her statement to me was along the lines of, “The country is burning down.” I’m looking at her and I’m trying not to react in front of the kids because she was a little elevated in her voice. So I stopped and I stepped outside the door and I said, “What’s going on,” and she said, “There’s something going on on the news.”
I said, “OK, listen, go and find out and come back to me,” and I went back into the classroom and made the attempt of trying to reset the conversation that me and the children were having but within the next minute, they knocked on my door again. I came out into the hallway and spoke with the principal. And they said we might have to evacuate the school. She said a plane came into the World Trade Center.
The school’s not too far from [the John F. Kennedy International Airport] so we were like, “Is it the airport? Did they give the wrong information?” Then there’s a good maybe 30 minutes or so. That’s when the second plane had hit. And it was like, oh my god, that wasn’t just an accident. It was like chaos in the adult world. When that second plane hit, the phone started ringing off [the hook]. We just got flooded with phone calls, parents flying up to the school, coming to sign their kids out. Parents were panicking. They didn’t know what to do.
The children were not chaotic. We tried our best to kind of keep everything in lockdown mode. I have to commend the staff at the time, because no person had a reaction in front of the children. We’re talking about elementary school. We brought some children into the auditorium, and we started to play some movies. We tried to get children into as many public or gathering spaces as we could just to attain order as much as we could. Because we also had teachers that were parents that had to leave.
My brother is a Wall Streeter, and he was working in a [World Trade Center tower]. Earlier that same week, my brother had been transferred, and sent to work in their offices on 59th Street. He didn’t get a chance to talk [to anyone in our family] about that before [that] time. But he used to work on the upper floors in that building, and that’s where my family’s mind was when we were trying to get in contact with each other and no cell phones were working. It was scary.
After that day, we turned into literally a place with a focus on grief counseling. That’s what everything became. When you’re sitting with elementary school students, the reality is there’s a lot of stuff that you just can’t ignore—things that you think they’re not paying attention to, they are. The children and teachers who were taking subways were now met at the subways with National Guardsmen. The whole entire city was different. This supposedly being the first few months of school and now your whole entire curriculum is shifting.
The stuff that took place during that time strengthened my belief in teamwork. Knowing that everything that took place during that time period, in terms of the calm and the organization that we developed within that school community for that day, happened because we communicated with each other. We were all on board regarding making sure that children were safe mentally, physically.
The level of understanding after—where we realized that, hey, the work that we’re doing, in leaning in and making sure that children are OK—that’s something that I never got rid of. To make sure that we did have conversations, not only on the level of academics, but personal, like how do you feel, making sure that that’s there and knowing that without that portion, it’s kind of hard to run a school. It made the school more cohesive because we were leaning on each other in ways that we didn’t expect. You can be prepared for chaos, but you can’t plan it out. You have to just be ready with your core beliefs and your understanding around making it through.
The feeling that I have from that time period is not very different than what is happening now educationally. This is very similar. The planning, the processing, the preparing, the wellness, the understanding for teachers, taking into account people are coming to the table with different perspectives on what’s happening in a global way with things that we can’t truly control. That was the same feeling that happened on 9/11, where you’re trying to get balance, because you begin to believe and feel like you, me as a leader, have to prepare something that’s going to allow education to not be forfeited and not be negated in some format. The impact of education has to occur.
When you’re looking at change, and the impact of what happened on 9/11, something that’s uncontrolled, my path says to me, I need to handle the things that I do know. We’re still living in very fragile times. You don’t know what’s going to happen. So how are you planning? What are you doing? The memory of the 20 years later made me think that someone is going to be wondering about this moment, 20 years from now. What am I going to do to give them the true [understanding] of that time period? Although the buildings collapsed, we were able to create community and connection that should have rippled into a full understanding of what America is supposed to stand for.