Teachers College and Its Alumni Respond to WTC Tragedy
Published in TC Today - Volume 26, No. 2
Teachers College and Its Alumni Respond to WTC Tragedy
Tuesday, September 11, 2001, began like any other weekday in New York City, but the sudden change of events in the downtown area quickly changed the course of the day. After terrorists crashed two planes into the World Trade Center, transportation both in and out of the City was blocked. More threats to major hubs in Manhattan were called in to the police, causing evacuations, confusion and fear. In spite of the situation, and to a large degree because of it, New Yorkers, as news reports have shown, reached out to each other in many different ways.
At Teachers College, as news spread of the attacks on the World Trade Center, members of the community worked to assist each other in finding help, a place to spend the night, or a way to get home. Many in the community, including food service, security staff, physical plant workers, and computer information services worked longer hours to meet the needs of the College.
TC President Arthur Levine and other members of the senior staff spent the day touring the College and the dormitories to speak with those who were still on campus. "Everyone was crowded into TV rooms or around radios," Levine noted in a letter to alumni. "People just wanted to be together." That evening, the dining service provided a free dinner to the entire community. The next day, the College was closed as New York started the slow process of coming to terms with the events of the previous day.
On Thursday, September 13th, the silence of New York City in the wake of the most deadly terrorist attack in history was deafening. The streets were almost empty. Everyone was quiet.
As staff, faculty and students began to make their way back to the College, work was already underway within the community to reach out to those who were in need. It began with a gathering of 300 students, faculty and staff to share breakfast, sadness and above all, hope.
As people settled in their chairs, President Levine got everyone's attention. But, it wasn't that difficult. No one was as boisterous as usual and laughter was absent. After his remarks, Levine asked everyone to join hands and observe a moment of silence for the victims of this tragedy.
When Frances Schoonmaker, Associate Professor of Education and Head of the Faculty Executive Committee, came to the podium, she acknowledged those who felt "helpless and peripheral." She reminded everyone that they "represent the life of New York and the life of a community."
She invited everyone to say people's names out loud who were involved in the tragedy. After names were called out from all over the room, Schoonmaker opened up the microphone to anyone in the community.
Many expressed gratitude for family members and friends who survived, the desire to be with family far away, and the sadness and shock at the loss of life and property, and a sense of wanting to do more. One man talked of working at the Twin Towers for nine years and having cleaned up after the first explosion there in 1993. International students spoke about similar tragedies they faced in their own countries.
Drawing from his experience as a hostage in Iran in 1979, Barry Rosen, Executive Director of External Affairs, said that terrorists try to diminish humanity in a tragic event. He learned as a hostage that, in the face of an unbearable situation, it was his colleagues that kept him going.
Marion Boultbee, Coordinator of Student Life, who works as the international student advisor, urged the TC community to help end the personal harassment and attacks on people of other cultures. "As an institution that supports international education, we must be active in ending this behavior-it is not acceptable," Boultbee said. "We must reach out to the international students and provide them with the support they need in this difficult time because they are so far away from their families."
Later in the day Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education George Bonanno, an expert on coping with grief, joined Professor Barry Farber and Dinelia Rosa, the Director of the Psychology Consultation Center to discuss how students in the Clinical Psychology Program could best serve the city. (See "Professor George Bonanno on Traumatic Loss and Bereavement")
As President Levine wrote to alumni, in the days since the tragedy, TC has been providing psychological and grief counseling to the TC community, the local community, parents of school children and for organizations such as New York State, the Board of Education and the schools. He added that work with schools and teachers on curriculum is also underway.
Changes were made in response to students who found they had trouble concentrating on their classes. For example, deadlines for selecting the pass/fail option were extended and students were offered the option of waiting until spring to take comprehensive exams.
"I have often told you the mission of Teachers College can best be described with two Hebrew words-'Tikkun Olam.' They mean to repair the world," Levine wrote. "We are doing this better than I have ever before seen."
Responses to the letter poured in from alumni, many simply thanking Levine for his thoughts and for sharing news about TC during this tragic time. Others had words of praise and encouragement.
"It gives me great pride to know that our school is carrying on so admirably during this tragedy and can contribute its vast resources during this time of need," wrote Maria A. Agostinelli, M.A. 2001. "I too believe that his [Levine's] motto for our school is uncannily accurate-we will go out and repair the world. Let us hope that my fellow alumni and I can do what we can to accomplish that goal."
Ellen Deitsch Stern, Director of the Anglo-American School of Moscow wrote, "There is no way but forward. As teachers and parents we hold the future in our hands. That is a serious responsibility."
Alumna Mary Kelly (M.A. 1994) is an elementary school principal in the Chicago suburbs. Kelly wrote about receiving a letter from a mother on September 12, the day after the attacks that told how hard it was to drop her children off at school in light of the situation of the previous day. The parent added, "But when I saw you and all the teachers outside in the parking lot to welcome each child with a hug and reassuring smile, I knew that as a professional educator, you would help my children more than I could."
Mark D. Hatton, an alumnus who serves as psychological analyst for NBC/MSNBC-TV wrote that on the night of the attack, he made his way to the studios to work on-air with correspondent Brian Williams to address how families could handle the news and events with their children. "It is heartwarming to reflect on the myriad professional and humanitarian responses associated with and stemming from TC," he added.
"I am proud to be a member of the TC family," wrote alumnus Ken Kelly in a message that reflected what many others said. "[It is] one that has, since the school was founded, never forgotten its and our individual mission-to make the world a better place for all, one person and one day at a time."
Special thanks to Jennifer Ho, a student at the Columbia University School of Journalism, for the use of her photos.