On September 11, 2001 I was a first-year teacher with only a few days’ experience. I drove to work, listening to panicked reports from the morning radio DJ.
I went to room 5 and got ready for my day, learning in bits and pieces of the day’s horrors.
Our principal directed us to carry on with our day as usual: no television, no internet, no outside news sources. We were to shield our students and provide them with a regular school day.
My kindergarten students and I were still adjusting to the routines and procedures of being in school. I had studied the curriculum, I had spent time observing other teachers, I had attended beginning-teacher trainings; but nothing quite prepares you for being in the front of the classroom and responsible for a group of 14 boys and 6 girls.
As my students entered the room, we began our day the same way we had on September 10th. We sang our Good Morning Song, recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and sang our patriotic song, “Three Cheers for The Red, White, and Blue.” We reviewed our calendar and sang about the days of the week and the months of the year. We sang the alphabet song. (There’s a lot of singing in kindergarten).
I don’t remember everything we did that day, but I do remember I painted my children’s hands. Some of my students were still learning to distinguish between their right and left hands. And some of my students were still learning how to control their hands, to keep them folded in their laps and not pulling on the hair of the child who sat in front of them, not opening and closing their shoes’ velcro, not cracking their knuckles.
We brainstormed and compiled a list about why our hands are important and what purposes our hands serve. We use our hands to clap. We use our hands to write. We use our hands to wave. We use our hands to pet our dogs. We use our hands to paint. We use our hands to brush our teeth. We use our hands to play ball. We use our hands to hug.
The next day my students came in to find a wall full of their handprints – blue, green, pink, yellow, red, orange, and purple. While they were all similar in shape and size, each was slightly different. Together, they created a rainbow wall of beauty, innocence, and hope.
Many of my students had no knowledge of the tragedy our country was experiencing. Some of them told me that “planes crashed into tall buildings in New York.” I was put in the difficult position of trying to keep twenty children calm, trying to make sure twenty children felt safe and protected, while knowing for certain that at that very moment, no one in our country felt calm, safe, or protected.
The only thing I could promise these children was effort: I told them that our school does its best job each day to keep everyone here safe and healthy. I told them that my number one job each day is to keep everyone safe whether we’re playing on the yard or doing work at our desks or reading a book on the rug.
And we looked at our handprints. We talked about all the “good ways” we use our hands. We use our hands to brush our hair. We use our hands when crossing the street. We use our hands to help. We use our hands for the Pledge of Allegiance.
It was the same lesson for our country. In the coming months and years, we’d use our hands to help, to hug, to rebuild, and to honor.