September 11, 2011 (911) Changed the Lives of All Americans
The Day Before 911 reflects on how 911 changed a DOD teacher overseas and the students he served and their families. It begins in 2011, ten years after the terrorists took out the World Trade Center. At that time Elliot was teaching in Germany. He hadn't expected to be back in the classroom. He had cleaned it out at the end of the previous year when he retired to become a writer. But life happened, and he returned to teaching after all. Although he had been teaching high school students in the previous year, he is now facing sixth graders because that's the grade that needed a teacher.
|Ground Zero, Image License CCO, Public Domain|
As he enters the class, he sees he needs a way to build rapport with these new students. He decides to use the school’s coming commemoration of the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 as an excuse tell them a story about a hero named Tony who loved baseball and stood a very good chance of being drafted into the big leagues. Then terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York and brought down the Twin Towers, killing over 3,000 people, Tony quit baseball and joined the Marines. He was blown up eleven times, but still kept going back to fight.
Elliot’s students found this hard to believe, but he explained that the qualities that made Tony good at baseball were the same qualities that made him a good Marine. He had learned teamwork in baseball and would have done anything for his teammates. Elliot told his students that Tony had “loved baseball and his teammates so much that he joined another team and put on a different uniform just so he could protect the way of life that he was giving up."
As Elliot was beginning his story, one of the girls raised her had to say that her birthday was (September 11.) It hit Elliot that she had never been able to celebrate her birthday on the actual day she was born. The terrorist attacks had happened on her very first birthday. After that, they always celebrated her birthday on September 10, the day before 9/11. It struck Elliot that since he’d taught high school before, this was the first history class he’d taught that had not remembered 9/11.
Sources: All quotes used here are from The Day Before 9/11 by Tucker Elliot. I noticed after writing this that Amazon also featured some of these quotes readers, including me, had highlighted, on its Kindle edition page.9/11 - The Filmmakers' Commemorative Edition
See What Happened on that Horrible Day in American History
This documentary film was shot as a result of videographers being at the right place at the right time. They were there to record the training of a firefighter at a firehouse a short distance from the World Trade Center when the first tower was struck.
Child Abuse in the Military
One of he undercurrents in The Day Before 9/11 was child abuse in the military. Elliot blamed himself for the death of two sisters, Angel and her little sister Grace. Angel had many absences from school he should have investigated in person. He also didn't read an email Grace sent not long before her death that might have motivated him to intervene.
He was at a family gathering after burying his grandmother. He was to fly out the next day to speak at a conference. His mother had ordered take-out pizza and he was supposed to pick it up. While waiting to go, he was scanning his email and saw the header of an email sent a few hours earlier by Angel. By this time his nephew was screaming loudly for him to go get the pizza. He deleted the email, not realizing its importance, and had gone to pick up the pizza.
The deaths haunt Elliot through the rest of the book and he fights his guilt and his loss of faith because he believed God hadn't answered his prayers for his students. He knew his students were dealing with the issues these videos discuss. He especially saw the effect on the children of not only absent parents, but the fear of the children whenever a parent left to go to a new post.
These are some of the same issues faced by children Tucker Elliot taught.
The video above explains the unique problems children of military families face.
Two Special Girls - Sami and Angel
Although this book will show you a lot about living as an expat civilian on a military base during wartime, you will learn much more about what it means to be a teacher and a human being. As Tucker Elliot looks at how his life and the life of his students changed after 9/11, he is filled with shame and guilt. Four girls entered his life -- Sami in Korea and the others, Angel, Grace, and the Birthday Girl, in Germany. Two of them died, and he believes if he'd followed his better instincts instead of withdrawing he might have saved those two who died.
The first special student was Sami. She walked into his life the year he was teaching in Korea. She loved soccer, and he was the athletic director. He used soccer to reach her and help her be strong in the face of change. When the school had to close for ten days after 9/11 for security reasons, Sami had missed Tucker. When she returned after the school reopened, her parents came with her. Sami hugged Tucker tightly and buried her face in his chest as she said she'd missed him. She introduced her parents. He was impressed with both. Her father was high on the chain of command, and Tucker could tell he was as good a father as he could be while gone so much. Tucker thinks:
I knew right then, my worst fear was going to come true.
Not letting the terrorists win means sometimes the good guys are going to die.
I thought, God no. Not this family.
When the classroom was empty, Tucker would go from desk to desk and pray for each student.
|Marine looking at wall of Vietnam Memorial |
He himself came from a military family. His dad and uncle had fought in Vietnam. His uncle never came home. His grandmother said she had 'received a flag for a son.' Tucker had visited the Vietnam Memorial in the company of his dad, but he couldn't get his dad to talk about his war experiences. Then at the memorial, his dad's actions changed. As he walked along the wall he ran his fingers over several names and prayed. When he came to his brother's name, he fell to his knees, rolled himself into a fetal position and cried.
Tucker had been named after his uncle and felt the burden of needing to be heroic himself and live out the kind of life his uncle never had the chance to live. He saw it as a heavy burden and says he resented carrying that burden because he could never be as good as his uncle.
There is too much pain and wisdom in the book to share it all here. But I will try to share some of it.
Teaching isn’t rocket science. It’s about being engaged, listening, paying attention. Despite conventional wisdom, you don’t need to talk a lot to teach well. You do need to care, though. Not so much about what people think of you or whether or not they like you, but about the kids and doing what’s best for them.
Sami's family was transferred to another part of the world. She emailed Tucker, but he never opened her emails. When he got to Germany the next year, he met Angel.
It turns out Sami had been Angel's best friend, and was delighted to have Tucker as her teacher. By the time Tucker met Angel, her mother, whom he'd not yet met, was already suffering from depression. Tucker had visited Ground Zero by then, and he reflects, "So many lives had been lost on that day, but ... I'd come to understand that military children continued to be victimized by these attacks." They were constantly losing their parents to deployment, not knowing if they would ever see them again. He couldn't deal with seeing that pain. He had transferred to Germany so he could teach in a larger school and be more anonymous.
It didn't work, though. Angel found him and told him Sami was upset because he didn't answer her emails. Angel had brought a brand new mousepad. She put it down beside where Tucker's computer would go and wrote her name on it in big letters. When he asked what she was doing, she said, 'You forgot Sami. I don't want you to forget me, too.'
Tucker still hesitated to be involved outside of class hours and usually went home at the end of the school day. Compared to the way he had interacted with his students in Korea, in Germany he was almost aloof as he tried to maintain emotional distance.
Autumn and Winter, and Sami Again
Five months later Sami entered his life again. Angel missed three days of school just after Sami came back. He thought of checking on her, but Sami was draining his energy.
|Autumn Leaves, © B. Radisavljevic|
Tucker tells us autumn and the first part of winter seemed to move along with no visible problems, but then all hell broke loose. Sami's dad got called back to Qatar and Angel's dad was sent to Kuwait. Neither family was ever the same again, nor was Tucker. By this time he strongly suspected something was wrong in Angel's family, but Sami wouldn't betray Angel's confidence to tell him what she knew. Angel herself said she wasn't supposed to talk about "family stuff."
Sami kept nagging Tucker to go visit Angel's home to see why Angel was missing so much school. Instead of going, Tucker told Sami to send her mother over to check on Angel's family. When Angel's family was leaving for their new location, Tucker gave Angel his email address and encouraged her to get in touch with him if she needed help. He told her talk and email were two different things.
I got the feeling that Tucker had not opened his emails from Sami because he could see how dependent she was on their relationship and it drained him emotionally. It's obvious, though that he cared about her. He also cared about Angel. Angel finally did send him an email after she left, but he didn't see it until several hours later, and then circumstances discouraged him from opening it. I never could understand why he ignored the girls' emails. I wanted to yell at him to read the emails. His deleting an email from Angel (under pressure from his nephew) may have sealed her doom. (See introduction to video module above.)
It's tough to review memoirs sometimes. Novelists create the ending they want. One can't always control how one's own life or the lives of others will turn out. I don't want to spoil this narrative by telling you all of it. I have hinted at what changed Tucker Elliot. He carried the footprints of Sami, Angel and Grace in his heart. I believe they will always be there. Perhaps he will also discover who he really is and I hope he finds his peace with the God he seems to have lost faith in.
At the end of the book he is on his way to the place where his uncle died, wondering what he will think and feel when he arrives. He wonders if he will find God and forgiveness at the end of his journey. He wonders if he will be strong enough to be good. He ends he book with these words:
...pain is the harbinger of hope. You have to be alive to feel pain. If you are alive, then you have purpose. If you have purpose, then you have hope....God I want to tell Sami that....I want to tell Sami I'm sorry.
Don't miss this teacher's heartbreaking account of his emotional journey after September 11, 2001. We may have seen the photo of the jets hitting the Twin Towers in New York, but much of the damage done that day is not visible to outside observers. It damaged the spirits of many like Tucker and the families of the children he taught. It destroyed the lives of many who were not even in the United States that day. It just took more time.
See more of my reviews of books for adults at Bookworm Buffet, the blog I started for that purpose. At Books to Remember, I review some of the best children's books and educational resources for teachers created before Common Core Standards existed. The books I review there will supplement any honest curriculum and may not be politically correct, even if the companies that published them now are.
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