On a beautiful fall morning 16 years ago, our nation’s collective consciousness was shattered by the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center. That day, our shared belief in the safety of our nation and its borders was instantly changed into a sense of disbelief, fear and anger, all of which persist to this day.
However, despite the negative ramifications of that fateful day, I’d like to remember a bright spot, reminiscent of which I witnessed this past week in the way first responders and everyday people responded in the wake of the devastation wrought by Harvey and Irma.
Back on September 11, 2001, I was superintendent of a school system in Illinois. On my desk was a private landline phone with a private number. I had ordered it in anticipation of a possible emergency. Until that day, it had rarely been used; on that day, however, it was invaluable. Shortly after the news hit, that phone lit up like a Christmas tree, ringing continuously throughout the day, as one principal after another called me to check in and recount what was happening at their school.
They told me they were being inundated with parents who showed up unannounced at school saying they wanted to help.
A quote from the famous children’s television personality Fred Rogers came into my mind: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” It immediately clicked for me to pass along this sage advice.
“Put them to work,” I told them. “Set up a table in the hallway by the front door, give them a copy of the school directory and ask them to make sure that no one comes to the school to pick up a child without being a family member or proof of written permission by the child’s parent.”
“If other parents come to school out of a need to be close with their children or one another, give them a job. Some of them can greet visitors at the door and direct them to the office. If they’re at your school to remove their child or someone else’s child, and are not on the approved list and the parent hasn’t made previous arrangements for a neighbor or relative to pick up their child from school, you must gently but firmly inform them that the child must stay until the end of the regular school day.”
The response was inspiring—administrators, teachers, staff and parents all worked together, calmly and in unison, throughout the day, to ensure the safety of the students who were under our care and protection.
I marveled at how parents, especially PTO mothers and fathers, displayed amazing grace and calmness. If they couldn’t answer a nervous parent’s question, they would refer them to the administrative office, where the principal or assistant principal could help them.
As the day began to calm down and a routine was established, I spent time drafting a letter to parents. Its message was to reassure them that their children were safe in school and would not be released early unless the proper protocol was followed. I wanted to stress that safety was our top priority and that the entire staff was available to answer their questions or concerns.
I told parents that it is difficult to make sense of irrational acts of terror, especially for young people. I advised them that when youngsters have questions, it is important to respond with as accurate information as possible. Children want to feel that adults are being honest with them about the gravity of the situation, and that they’re taking the necessary steps to make sure they are safe. I encouraged parents to listen and respond to their children’s fears by reassuring them that grownups were taking on the responsibility for their safety.
That day as superintendent, I was prepared to do everything in my power to ensure the safety and security of my students. Although I worried about the event’s long-term impact on the children, I knew that we, as educators, would be prepared to offer the support and assistance they and their families needed.
This week, in the aftermath of Harvey and Irma, I think of all the helpers who showed up to rescue people and help them get their lives back in order. My heartfelt thoughts are with the educators in Florida and Texas, as they grapple with ways to foster a sense of normalcy and safety among the students whose families were affected.
Over the course of life, each of us has, at one time or another, been both a helper and somebody who has received help. Reflect in your writing about the times you were helped by a stranger, as well as those times where you were the one who rose to the challenge of helping another, and what those experiences meant to you.