Watching thick, black smoke billow out of the North Tower of the World Trade Center was not what Stacey Fell-Eisenkraft (Ed.D. ’05) had expected on this Tuesday in September. An eighth-grade teacher at a school in Chinatown, Fell-Eisenkraft quickly moved toward a colleague’s window upon the news that something was very amiss, the TC alumna describes in Forever After: New York City Teachers on 9/11, published by TC Press in 2006.
The challenge now, as most of these teachers know, is to keep the towers from falling over and over, to summon up images of the possible, images of building anew.
— The late Maxine Greene, TC’s William F. Russell Professor Emerita in the Foundations of Education
Though these accounts from Fell-Eisenkraft and other educators were published fifteen years ago, their stories remain deeply relevant and vivid today — as New York and the world grapple with where the past 20 years have led us after a tragedy that spurred changes in national identity, security, prejudice, geopolitics and more. For the students like Fell-Eisenkraft’s — whose proximity to Ground Zero thrust them into the painful and chaotic aftermath of the attacks — understanding and coping with 9/11 became an assignment for teachers in the classroom.
The View from Chinatown
Like the rest of New York, the immediate days after 9/11 consisted of major shifts in everyday life for Fell-Eisenkraft and her students. Their lower-Manhattan school doubled as a Red Cross emergency center for the community, as well as rescue workers and volunteers following shifts at Ground Zero. Weeks after the attack, many continued to live without electricity, hot water or phone service — with Fell-Eisenkraft’s students expressing concern that their Chinatown neighborhood had been left behind in the city’s efforts to rebuild. Nevertheless, the national surge of American flags still entered Chinatown — a surprise to Fell-Eisenkraft, who noted that the majority of her students, who were Chinese, more closely identified with their parents’ home-country prior to the attacks. She wrote:
“Yet in light of September 11th’s events, my students are suddenly more American than ever. This phenomenon perplexes me. My students, who are both people of color and recent immigrants, all live below the national poverty line. Their life stories speak to the complex ways in which issues of race, gender, and class intersect. They hold fast to their Chinese identities because they are proud of their heritage but also because there doesn’t seem to be room for them in the taken-for-granted definition of the word American. Overnight, this appears to have changed. The “Attack on America” (CBS News) seems to have presented my students with the opportunity to become instantly American, in a way that citizenship papers and green cards do not. The recipe for being a proud American is relatively simple these days, and my students are pleased with themselves for figuring it out...I wonder how the attack on New York will continue to affect the ways the students define themselves and the ways they negotiate the different worlds in which they live.”
The aftermath of the attacks and subsequent classroom discussions “marked a turning point” in Fell-Eisenkraft’s teaching practices, which beginning in 2002, incorporated oral history into helping students “make sense” of their experiences, “raising new issues, dilemmas, and bringing old beliefs into question,” she wrote. Today, Fell-Eisenkraft remains a middle-school educator in New York City.
Searching for Answers on the Upper West Side
Further uptown, in the days following 9/11, fourth grade teacher Isaac Brooks (M.A. ’94) also faced fearful students with lots of questions — many of which didn’t have easy answers. Though public officials urged New Yorkers to “go about life as usual,” the proposition seemed unfathomable to Brooks after such a destructive event.
Despite his years of experience and training, Brooks didn’t have an immediate path forward. “I still had no idea how to help my students make sense of this event,” he wrote in his Forever After reflection of the days and weeks following the attacks. “I took a breath and realized that it didn’t make any sense. Flying two passenger jets and their passengers into skyscrapers is not supposed to make sense. I had to go deeper than logic or human nature to find something comforting to share with my students. I had to mine the depths of me being to find what it was that gave me hope. I knew I had to share that with my students: I share hope.”
I had to go deeper than logic or human nature to find something comforting to share with my students. I had to mine the depths of me being to find what it was that gave me hope. I knew I had to share that with my students: I share hope.
— Isaac Brooks (M.A. ’94)
Promising his class that together, the group could maybe “figure some of this stuff out,” Brooks focused on facilitating an open dialogue with the young students, many of whom could not help but feel unsafe in their own tall apartment buildings. Among the class’ less privileged students, “the effects of this disaster had even more devastating effects. As usual in New York City history, times of crisis seem to be borne unequally by its citizens, with marginalized and at-risk individuals bearing more than their fair share,” Brooks wrote, noting that the attack seemingly unsettled certain students more than others. Student questions, and distress, kept coming — and led Brooks to bring a different kind of consciousness to the classroom. He wrote:
“I had more questions than answers. At Teachers College, we were told to model our perplexity at new problems if we didn’t have the answers. This was to empower our students when they are baffled, to work through their confusion. So, I knew that pretending to have it all figured out and to try to explain this event was an unrealistic aim...suddenly my job as a teacher had become onerous in its responsibilities to the children I was to teach. I hadn’t been with the police or firefighters who rushed into the Twin Towers, yet I was saddled with the clean up job — the repair of the psychic damage wrought upon our next generation of New Yorkers...I was hoping to say just the right thing, yet conscious of how unrealistic that hope might be. Everything seemed to be held in a precarious balance.”
For Brooks, 9/11 granted him “a new appreciation for the importance to society” that teaching holds. Today, Brooks is a middle school English teacher in the Bronx.
Calling Out Bigotry and Supporting Muslim Youth
Though across the Hudson River in neighboring New Jersey on 9/11, Michelle Fine (Ph.D. ’80) would spend the following years joining other educators in the metaphorical clean–up of the aftermath. A professor at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, Fine joined other psychology scholars and mental health advocates in a program that connected them with Muslim-American youth — “a small effort to bear witness to the collateral damage at home,” manifesting in anti-Muslim discrimination and hate.
“Like the Arab and Muslim students with whom we spoke, many students today find themselves part of the ‘collateral damage,’ exiled from mainstream culture,” Fine wrote in 2006. “As teachers, we are charged with the responsibility of helping all students find a voice, and guiding them toward a deeper understanding of the multilayered circumstances that define a complicated, and often difficult, world.”
As teachers, we are charged with the responsibility of helping all students find a voice, and guiding them toward a deeper understanding of the multilayered circumstances that define a complicated, and often difficult, world.
— Michelle Fine (Ph.D. ’80)
Fine, troubled by the “nationalistic ideology” that seeped into seemingly every corner of American life, saw room for more extensive classroom discussions about international policy and the United States’ history in the Middle East. The way that nationalism could frame contemporary explanations of how and why 9/11 occurred was inherently dangerous — and created opportunity for potential missteps in the future. Fine wrote:
“If we do not teach about conditions of oppression and terror (state- and corporate-sponsored, interpersonal, domestic and suicide bombs), even in times of relative prosperity and peace, we relinquish the space of public education to the globalization of terror, greed, fear, obedience and silencing. By so doing, we surrender democracy, hollow the souls of educators and youth, and threaten our collective futures...Today’s students will become tomorrow’s voters, policy makers, and world leaders. With such important responsibilities to look forward to, they deserve an education that interrogates what they know, and what they need to know.”
Today, Fine is a Distinguished Professor of at The Graduate Center, CUNY, teaching in Critical Psychology, Women’s Studies, American Studies and Urban Education. Her research focuses on social injustice.
Remembering with Hope
Twenty years after the towers fell, the profound losses and painful aftermath remain evocative — to many all over the world, and certainly to New Yorkers. Other remnants of 9/11 — heightened airport security, military officers in key New York locales and even ongoing debates about American foreign policy — have now become part of everyday life.
The act of remembering is inherently pursued with hope for the future. As the late Maxine Greene, TC’s William F. Russell Professor Emerita in the Foundations of Education, wrote in Forever After’s forward prior to her passing: "The challenge now, as most of these teachers know, is to keep the towers from falling over and over, to summon up images of the possible, images of building anew."
Reprinted by permission of the Publisher. From Teachers College Press; Grolnick, M. (Ed.), Forever After: New York City Teachers on 9/11, New York: Teachers College Press. Copyright (c) 2006 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.