The Potential Heroism of Us All: 9-11-01


In Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington DC, the morning of September 11, 2001, was one in a string of clear, mild days that almost felt like the return of spring. As usual, I clicked off the news on my radio shortly before 8:30 AM and headed for the school, which stood almost directly across the street from my apartment.

I'd been scheduled to speak to a class first thing that morning and had just returned to my office when our principal made a quick detour to step inside my door. With a roomful of second graders at her back, Cintia spoke quietly. "Have you heard the news?" she asked.

"I was listening to the news before heading out this morning…" I didn't know what she was referring to.

Cintia started to tell me something about a plane crash in New York when she paused in mid-sentence: "Did you hear that?" she asked, looking at me intently. I played it back… I had -- a low rumbling sound that had lasted two or three seconds. We would soon learn that a plane had just struck the Pentagon a couple miles away.

Patrick Henry Elementary School is a multi-cultural place, with parents who come from all over the world. Many have seen war and civil unrest first hand. That morning so many of them came to take their children home from school that our classrooms soon held half the usual number of students. Parents were often visibly agitated or upset. Our front office staff was being overrun. The children who remained started wanting to know why everyone was going home.

Like the rest of the nation, we didn't know what was going on. Like New York, we knew that our city was a focus of attack.


The rest of the day was a blur of intensely efficient activity. In fact, later on, with all the meetings and talks about emergency preparedness, I couldn't help but think that it would be hard to surpass that day's spontaneous efforts.

Non-classroom teacher staff quickly noticed and communicated to each other that the front office needed help retrieving and keeping track of the many children who were going home. A steady stream of us quietly went up and down the long hallways, asking for students at classroom doors as unobtrusively as possible. We tag-teamed:"Hey…!" somebody would call in a loud whisper to someone exiting with a child from a classroom. "We need Carlos too…" Some of us reassured parents, sometimes in their own language. Others, with better office skills, were able to function as extra hands on deck. Usually we anticipated needs ahead of time – no need to be asked.

Teachers knew what to do that day without benefit of the memos that would start coming in from the central office next morning. They answered student questions only to the extent necessary, emphasized that school was a safe place to be, and discouraged parents from exposing children to the images on TV.

The total, concentrated, and uninterrupted staff-attention to the needs of children and parents amazed me. I could see that if the walls had started coming down, all of us would have continued doing our jobs. Yes, I could see anxiety and even fear in some faces – and I could see the strength. In Cintia's apprehensive but purposive manner when she'd asked if I'd heard it too. In Clare's frightened eyes as she momentarily stepped into the hall early that morning to ask if I knew what was going on. I didn't. Turning away, I caught the usual sound of her comforting, slightly singsong early-elementary schoolteacher's voice as she stepped back into her room to continue with her lesson. I could see it in Ellen's This is starting to get really crazy eyes – as the principal's assistant, she was on the front line -- accompanied by her unfailing courtesy and refocus each time she turned to respond to the next parent crowding in at her desk.

Great and obvious courage was everywhere. There was something in each of us that quietly and presumptively refused to budge in the face of an insanity with the potential to threaten students. We moved through the day concertedly and fluidly, with "leadership qualities" springing up all over the place: a reorganized team intent on staying on top of whatever was coming at us.

The appalling spectacles and sounds of 9/11 were imprinted forever on the nation's collective mind. Yet we also witnessed the extraordinary heroism of ordinary people: our firefighters, rescue workers, and random citizens caught up in the day's events. Watching the staff of Patrick Henry Elementary School in action that day, I had the privilege of seeing clear intimations of the potential heroism of us all.

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
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