I was 21 when the World Trade Center was attacked. I had been a teacher for about 3 weeks. Three months after graduating college with a two month intensive teacher boot-camp, I found myself in Brownsville, Texas teaching 9th grade geography. I was a member of the Alliance for Catholic Education*, a Catholic school version of Teach For America. I was still at the point that I was offended when my students called me “Ma’am”, had no idea what I was doing, and getting used to life in South Texas**. I was overwhelmed, exhausted, and loving my life. Then, I found myself in my classroom on September 11th, watching Mexican TV with my students, and trying not to cry as I tried to process what was going on and be strong for these young people I was in charge of. As of much of my first year of teaching, I closed my eyes, took a breath and did the best I could.
The rest of the school year was a blur. We prayed a lot. My students lead prayers for the people of Afghanistan, the people lost on 9/11, for peace, for grace, for hope, for justice, and for love. Eight years after leaving Catholic schools, I still consider myself blessed to be in a place where we could pray and view the world through a lens of social justice and empathy when the worst happened. We studied a lot. I created geography lessons around Afghanistan, compared Catholicism with Islam, reviewed just-war theory, and studied the cost US dependence on foreign oil. Looking back, I am incredibly proud of what my classroom looked like in my two years in Brownsville.
The past 10 years have also been blur. I have lived in Washington DC, teaching in a school with kids from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea, El Salvador and dozens of other countries. I have lived overseas for the past three years, keeping my eyes on State Department warnings and maintaining a faith in the kindness of strangers. I believe the world is small, karma is real, and sharing good food can lead to friendship in most places. I have moved on, as have my students. But we have lived in the shadow of 9/11 for ten years.
When they caught Osama bin Laden last week, I was hurtled back to my classroom in Saint Joseph Academy. My students from 2001 are now 23-24, older than I was when I started teaching. There is no doubt that something was taken from them on 9/11. And the past 10 years have not been kind to anyone, regardless of country of origin or political belief. I saw a lot of young people celebrating in DC and New York after the death of Osama. There is a chance some of my students would have been in this crowd. While I wouldn’t choose to chant U-S-A in front of the White House, I understand why they yell. I just hope they remember some of the lessons I struggled to teach ten years ago.
* Calling the Alliance for Catholic Education the “Catholic Version of Teach for American” is a beat of cheat. It is a two-year service program/Masters Degree program run through the University of Notre Dame. It was much, much more for me and deserves it’s own post.
** Speaking of difficult to summarize, Brownsville Texas is impossible to explain. A border town on the southern tip of Texas, the only job you could do without speaking Spanish was teaching. About 1/3 of my students lived in Mexico and crossed over every day to go to school. Border culture is much more fluid than you think. And incredibly special.