As we remember the tragic events of September 11, 2001, on this tenth anniversary, we recall what we were doing when we first heard the news. I was teaching my seventh grade English classes on that morning when my close friend Sharon came to find me between first and second periods to tell me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Knowing that Ed, a native New Yorker, had family who worked in Manhattan, she was concerned about my in-laws and knew I would want to make certain they were all right with a call home to Ed. Not wanting to tie up the phone lines in case Ed was trying to get ahold of his sister and brother, I decided to wait to call him until the break between my next two classes. During the next class, my principal brought me a written message that he was hand delivering to all staff members. In capital letters at the top of the note read the following statement: “DO NOT SHARE WITH STUDENTS!” Trying not to register any emotion, I quickly scanned the rest of the note detailing the planes crashing into both of the World Trade Towers as well as into the Pentagon. Moreover, the note stated that one of the Twin Towers had collapsed. Saying a silent prayer, I somehow calmly taught my students a lesson on punctuation. After that class, I ran to the library, where I knew I would find the comfort of my friend Sharon and hoped to find more news on what had happened.
A quick phone call home to Ed reassured me that he and Alex were fine, and he had been able to ascertain that his brother and his sister’s husband, both of whom worked in New York City, were thankfully safe. Our next concern was how Alex was going to react to the constant barrage of news reports detailing the horrible series of events. We weren’t sure how much he comprehended in his nine-year-old mind impacted by autism. Despite his deficits in social skills, other people’s tears and sorrow have always moved Alex, and we worried that the outpouring of emotion shown on the news would overwhelm him. In addition, we thought that he might be upset because the news coverage interrupted his regular television viewing schedule. He was likely to be more upset by missing The Price Is Right than he was to be upset by the news of the terrorist attacks. Fortunately, he handled the changes better than we expected and did not seem to be agitated by the news broadcasts we had on the television as we were trying to make sense of what had happened.
Despite my upset and fears, I knew we had to discuss with Alex calmly what had happened that day so that he could process it. At the same time, I didn’t want him to have fears that would haunt him in the future, such as being afraid to fly on an airplane or to go in a skyscraper. I had once read that children with autism live in constant fear, and we have always tried to make Alex feel safe, so that he didn’t live in fear. I really don’t think that fear is a constant in Alex’s life because the only things he seems to fear are lightning (probably because I had once told him that he couldn’t go play outside since there was lightning that could strike and kill him—that warning resonated with him) and getting water in his eyes (I take no blame for that one.). He really doesn’t seem overly afraid of anything else, and I hope that’s because he trusts that Ed and I, with God's help, will keep him safe, as we have always done throughout his life. That evening, I asked him if he knew what had happened in New York, and he told me, “Yes, the big buildings fell down.” He didn’t seem to want to talk about it any more than that, and his matter-of-fact nature made us realize that he wasn’t overwhelmed by fear or by what he had seen on the news, and we were thankful that he handled the news calmly. With his vivid visual memory, I’m sure that Alex carries images of September 11th, as we all do—the day when “the big buildings fell down.” Maybe some day he’ll fully comprehend the magnitude of the day’s events, but until he can, I’m thankful that he feels safe and doesn’t allow fear to take any control in his life.
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:7