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Remembering September 11 — When Terror Came to Preschool

Welcome to preschool

Published in ChicagoNow, September 11, 2014

The kids whose first day of preschool was September 11, 2001 are in high school now. I doubt they have any memory of the day at all, but my colleagues and I at Cherry Preschool will never forget it.

Because it was what we call pre-visit day, when children come individually with parents or guardians to meet their teachers and see their classrooms, most of the staff had arrived early and was busy preparing. It was such a beautiful morning. Perfect for starting a new journey in a child’s life. I was director of the school, so I had been there for quite some time when a staff member who had just arrived shouted, “Turn on the TV.” It was 7:45 am Chicago time – too early for kids to be arriving.

It didn’t seem possible. A plane had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. How could such a weird accident happen? Was it a small private plane that had flown off course?

2001 was still a relatively innocent time. Internet news and cell phones were not that common yet, so the staff gathered in our Community Room around the small television we used for playing training videotapes. And our world changed.

By 8:03 we watched in disbelief as the second plane hit the south tower. When the third plane hit the Pentagon at 8:37, my colleagues and I were in shock. Several of us were crying. I remember thinking that this was impossible but also that our country was under attack. And then I looked at the clock and said, “Turn it off.” Kids would start arriving at 9:00. We hugged one another and teachers went to their classrooms. My administrative colleagues and I stood by the front door to greet the little ones on their first day of preschool.

There were a few parents too distraught to keep up the charade. While the teachers greeted their preschoolers with warm smiles, we administrators dispensed hugs and diverted them to the office so their kids wouldn’t see their tears.

We missed the horrors that continued through the morning – the plane crashing in Pennsylvania, the bodies falling, the collapse of the towers. At lunch hour, we gathered around that small TV and watched all of these in stunned silence. But we knew more kids and families would be coming for afternoon classes and we had to pull it together.

Our song leader doing her job

I’m not sure how it happened, but we decided to go outside and somehow find a way to comfort ourselves so we could go through the first day of school for yet another group of preschoolers. We held hands and then Julie’s clear voice rang out, “God Bless America.”

As we sang, we put our arms around each other. I will never forget the bond I felt with those women that morning. We had become a sisterhood mourning the death of so many and loss of our nation’s innocence. But we were also a sisterhood of resilience, strength, and purpose. Others joined us – the women who worked next door, the mail carrier, passersby who parked their cars and entered our huge group hug.

The other songs we sang that day included We Shall Overcome and a children’s favorite, Pete Seeger’s version of This Little Light of Mine. Then we dried our tears and went back to work.

Of course, nothing was ever the same. That school year, our Risk Management Guide was expanded to include plans for terrorist attacks. That September, I wrote this to our school community:

“The beginning of this school year is one we will never forget. Thank you, Cherry families, for trusting us to care for and teach your precious children in this time of fear and anxiety. It was very hard to carry on and let go of the children, but you bravely did so for their sake. I also thank our wonderful staff for greeting the children with warm welcomes and smiles, even though we were all crying inside.

Clearly, the tragedy has touched our little ones. A three-year-old, pondering the events of September 11, poignantly wondered who was kicking the back of the pilot’s seat because, “If you do that, you have an accident.” A group of four-year-olds sat at the playdough table building “very strong towers.” Two sisters took the American flags from the window and whispered to and another: “Something bad happened,” said one. Her sister replied, “Some people died.” Through these sad days and weeks to come, the children’s sweet faces and innocent perspectives will sustain us all and renew our belief in the basic goodness of humanity.”

I remember singing God Bless America a lot that year, but the song that really got to me, and still does, is the kiddy version of the old gospel song, This Little Light of Mine. The song had evolved since written in 1920 by Harry Dixon Loes into a civil right anthem before folkies like Pete Seeger and children’s musicians like Raffi and Odetta made it a preschool standard.

In The Seeker’s version of the song, there is a verse that says,

Light that shines is the light of love,

Hides the darkness from above,

Shines on me and it shines on you,

Shows you what the power of love can do.

Shine my light both bright and clear,

Shine my light both far and near,

In every dark corner that I find,

Let my little light shine.

On this 13th anniversary of 9/11, after listening to President Obama’s speech last night about the ISIS/ISEL/IS (take your pick – all bad choices) threat, I wished just for a moment to be hugging my preschool sisters again. And, on this anniversary of September 11, I hope that someday the power of love will overcome the fear and despair that entered our lives that day.


by Laurie Levy
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