What Lies Ahead            
Gayle Thawley

© Copyright 2016 by Gayle Thawley


 Honorable Mention--2017 Biographical Nonfiction


Photo of the World Trade Center before the attack.

How lucky we are that we do not know what lies ahead as nothing that picture perfect September morning prepared me for the hours to come. For that matter, nothing in my life prepared me for the hours to come.

Standing on the small wooden porch of the portable classroom I lovingly called ‘Math Heaven’ at Kilmer Middle School in Fairfax, Virginia, I felt my first feeling of relaxation since my summer vacation had ended just two short weeks before. The tedious attention to the details of a new school year had dominated my life completely. Class lists for 152 students, preparing lesson plans, meeting after meeting, the list went on and on.

Finally, the best day of any new school year had arrived . . . The day of the Diagnostic Skills Test. All I had to do was pass out the papers and proctor the test. Knowing the relaxing day before me, I greeted each of my new 7th graders with, “A day without math is like a day without sunshine”. Unsure of just how to be middle school cool, most simply smiled as they filed by trying to remember their assigned seat.

Minutes later the test timing began. It was the perfect time to place a face with a name. (Memorizing 152 names is no easy task.) I had barely matched Abigayle Gates and Colby Tyler when the door to the trailer was opened by Susan, a counselor and dear friend. I knew from past experience that her standing in the doorway signaled that she had something to say she did not want the kids to hear. I could barely believe my ears when I approached her and heard, “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.” Without a thought I responded, “What? There’s nothing but a great big sky up there. How does a pilot fly into a building?” After sharing our disbelief for a few more minutes we naively concluded that there was only one explanation, there must have been a problem with the steering. With that we both went back to our respective duties.

When the door again opened twenty minutes later Susan’s face conveyed ghastly news. As I reached her side she whispered, “Another plane has hit the World Trade Center.” I only remember exclaiming, “Oh My God, watch my kids” as I ran down the same wooden steps I had relaxed upon barely an hour before. My mind was racing. Where was the closest phone I could use? What was that emergency number for the tower at National Airport? Who was on duty? Would my husband be the one answering the phone? My questions were answered as a voice in the control tower enunciated, “National Tower”. Recognizing it was not my husband, I somehow managed the words, “This is Gayle Thawley. Are you guys all right?” “We are just fine, don’t worry”, the voice spoke so calmly it prompted me to simply sign off with a simple, “Take care of yourselves”.

Walking back to my trailer I knew I had to make a decision as to whether or not to tell the kids. They should know current events. Why upset them? They were testing. With that thought, I opted to let my kids have a normal day for as long as possible. Little did I know that my door would open yet one more time.

A little before 10:00 Susan stood with a paper in hand which began, “At 9:40 AM a plane flew into the Pentagon . . . .” Not the Pentagon. Not the seat of America’s military power.

My thoughts once again ran rampant. The Pentagon employs 23,000 workers. How many had been hurt? Fairfax County has 165,000 students. How many of them had parents who worked in the building?

I have never marveled more over the undaunted spirit of educators than I did in the hours that followed. My awe began with the Superintendent, who, my friend informed me, gave two brilliant orders within minutes of the crash. “First” she began, “All schools are to send their attendance lists, noting all absent students and their country of origin, to the Superintendent’s Office immediately”.

Second, Guidance Counselors are to identify all students whose parents filled out a Federal Survey listing their work location as the Pentagon. I am to personally telephone each and every emergency number for those students. If the family member employed at the Pentagon is reported to be okay then I am to call the student out of class and tell them that they are going to hear that the Pentagon has been hit by a plane but, ‘Don’t worry, I have spoken to your Mom/ Dad and your parent is just fine’. If Mom or Dad are not known to be okay then I have to ask how the family would like the school to handle the situation”.

It was at that moment that reality hit home. How could I turn and proctor a test knowing I might be facing a twelve year old who unknowingly had just lost a mother or father? In hindsight I can honestly say that I have never marveled more over my own undaunted spirit as an educator than I did when I turned, surveyed my students, smiled, folded my arms and paced around the room as if all was right with the world.

By lunchtime the discussion within the Teacher’s Lounge centered around whether or not the students should be informed. Elementary schools were not reporting the news. High schools had turned their televisions on. There we were, as always, in between the little kids and the big kids. After much debate, we collectively acknowledged we did not know how to alleviate the fears of our students when we ourselves were afraid. The overwhelming consensus concluded to keep the news quiet.

Returning from lunch, it took everything I had to continue proctoring the Diagnostic Skills Test with a smile. No day, before or since, has ever seemed longer. The world was exploding; People were dying; My husband was still in the tower; And there I was overseeing a math test! I was brought back to reality when McKinsey needed more scratch paper. Yes, the world within my trailer was normal.

It was normal, that is, until the silence of the day was interrupted by a PA announcement. Unfortunately, the overwhelming consensus of silence within the Teacher’s Lounge had fallen short of being 100% by one, the Principal. The shortcoming became clear when the all too familiar voice over the loud speaker announced, “There will be no late activities after school due to what has happened today. All students need to go straight home.” Understandably, cries of, “What happened?” followed.

Instinctively I knew that, much like the moment in time when the announcement of the assassination of John Kennedy had been made, my students would always remember where they were and what was said when the events of September 11, 2001 were recalled. With carefully chosen words I began, not to explain all of the events of the day like a newscaster because the actual events were so inexplicable to me, but rather to alleviate the fear I saw so markedly on their faces.

Two planes flew into the World Trade Center, a third plane flew into the Pentagon and a fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania this morning. No one is certain of any of the details but one thing is certain . . . You need not be afraid. No one on the face of this Earth has been sitting around planning to fly a plane into School Bus # 54 on Gallows Road or into a 12 year old walking home from Kilmer Middle School. I promise you, you need not be afraid.”

Just then, as if Heaven-sent for just that moment, the roar of F-16’s overhead supported my speech. “Do you hear those planes? They are the United States Air Force F-16’s flying over our Nation’s Capital to protect us. Rest assured, you can count on them. There will be no more airplanes flying into buildings in this city. So My Dear Hearts, head straight home after school, and talk with your parents who in all probability are already home since the government shut down much earlier today. Turn on your televisions, as I will, and hopefully we will all learn more about just what has happened today. Most of all, promise me you will not be afraid.”

As the final bell for the day rang I stood by the door to that wooden porch where I had so looked forward to the day. I held open my arms ready to give a hug to anyone who needed a hug as I made each promise they would not be afraid. Much to my surprise, all of my “I’m Cool” kids, boys and girls alike, gave a hug. As the last one passed, I followed them out to the buses and stood waving to each bus as it headed to the unknown.

Finally, the ‘best’ day of the new school year had ended but my story did not end at 2:40 that day. Hurrying home, the stench of a smoldering fire awakened an emotion I had not felt earlier that day . . . anger. That was MY Pentagon burning. Those were MY fellow Americans. Why the very heart of MY country had been attacked. Was nothing sacred? Even MY innocent kids were victims of the day. In fact, I concluded, we were ALL victims.

My anger became entwined with disbelief as I later listened to my husband’s summary of his day in the tower. “At 8:43, Flight 11 did not respond to the NYC Tower,” he began. “At 8:45 it crashed into the World Trade Center. At 9:03, Flight 175 flew into the World Trade Center. At 9:06 the New York Center shut down all New York air traffic. At 9:24 we knew that Flight 77 was a runaway headed straight for Washington. The Secret Service at the White House was immediately called sending Dick Cheney and Condolezza Rice to the underground bunker for safety . At the same time, I spoke to the F-16 fighter planes from Andrews who were already in the sky on maneuvers and asked if they were loaded with live ammunition or dummies. When they responded that they were loaded with dummies, I exclaimed, ‘Land and get battle armed.’ Knowing that it takes at least 15 minutes under optimum conditions for a fighter plane to land and load live ammunition I hoped against knowledge that they would be able to intercept the runaway. Sixteen minutes later, at 9:40, Flight 77 flew into the Pentagon after overshooting the White House. I felt so helpless as I watched the plane descending behind the skyscrapers of Crystal City and then, then I saw the cloud from the explosion as it rose above the skyline.” A tear in his eyes evinced the emotional impact of what he had seen. Then, with obvious pride, he continued, “In an unprecedented move, the FAA at 9:45 ordered over 4,500 planes nationwide to land immediately. We were landing planes anywhere we could find space. International flights were diverted and kept out of the country. We did do one hellava good job because by 12:15 all flights were grounded and military planes controlled all U.S. Airspace . . . How was your day?”

In the days that followed I came to respect the incredible number of heroes there were not only in New York, on Flight 93, at the Pentagon, and within the FAA, but in all walks of life, across all ages, especially my kids who were propelled into a whole new world in one short school day. So much for the best day of any new school year, the day of the Diagnostic Skills Test. How lucky we are, indeed, that we do not know what lies ahead! 

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