Jack Czajkowski: ‘Innocence was shattered in an instant’

  • In this Saturday, Sept. 15, 2001 file photo, the Statue of Liberty stands in front of a smoldering lower Manhattan at dawn, seen from Jersey City, N.J. AP

Published: 9/13/2021 11:20:21 AM

We were just a couple of weeks into the new school year in 2001, at the Franklin County middle school where I taught seventh graders science. While our students were in their exploratory class, our team of teachers was hosting a meet-and-greet with about a dozen parents.

My principal came to the classroom and gave me a wave out to the hall. In an “I-will-never-forget-this moment,” he said, “The USA is under attack.” The principal had been my mentor for student teaching a few years earlier, and we trusted each other completely or else this would have been beyond belief.

We brought the parent meeting to a quick close and went back to our classrooms, unsure how the day would unfold. The superintendent felt it was best to keep all of our students at school as many parents were away at work. It was hard to know what to do, or how to react to such an unimaginable event.

With just minutes to prepare, my UMass student teacher and I watched the headlines and saw the Twin Towers burning. We scrambled to organize our thoughts and amend our lesson. Our students had already heard about the attack from some high school students in the hall of our shared building when they came back to the middle school on the third floor.

What do you say to a group or 12- and 13-year-olds who were scared that their town would be attacked next? 9/11 came after the shooting at Columbine High School, but a decade before Sandy Hook and active shooter training. Innocence was shattered in an instant.

We proceeded to address their questions about our town being attacked to our audience of frightened middle school students. We brainstormed why our town was not a military target and why we were safe. With students, safety comes first.

No teacher-training program will prepare you for teaching the unknown in real time during this kind of event. Even though we had met just a few days earlier, we bonded in that moment and learned to truly trust each other.

Jack Czajkowski



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