While Forever Changed, Life Goes On

As we have just marked the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, much has been written and spoken about the day and its effects, short- and long-term.

I've spoken with many people about how the terror of that day played out in our public schools. New York City has 1.1 million children who attend public schools, and seven schools were in close proximity to the World Trade Center. I am deeply thankful that there wasn't a single report of a child attending New York City public schools being hurt or missing in the day's chaos.

I will forever be proud of the teachers and school staff who bravely put aside concerns for their own safety to protect their students. I think of the courage, caring and resourcefulness they displayed. This came from the heart, from the gut -- not because they had been trained for any of this. They had not. They just dug deep and put their students' well-being ahead of all else.

Forty-three AFT members died in the attacks, including three teachers (and three of their students) from the District of Columbia Public Schools. Many students, parents and others in communities across America lost loved ones. And no one who experienced this will ever be the same. In the days, weeks and months that followed, educators tended to those who had lost parents, family members, neighbors and friends -- and calmed the fears so many of us, children and adults alike, carried with us.

Over the last few days, in New York City and Washington, D.C. -- in conversations, small gatherings and official commemorations--I was frequently drawn back into the piercing sadness and horror of that terrible time. But an unexpected encounter I had, as I attended the New York City Sept. 11 memorial dedication ceremony this Sunday, gave me tremendous perspective, offering rays of optimism and hope.

While listening to the names of those who perished, a woman -- an educator, it turns out--approached me with her nephew, an 11-year-old boy who lost his mother when the towers collapsed. As we spoke, I was struck by the enormity of his loss, and he and his dad acknowledged their grief. Yet, as mourners nearby placed their fingers on their loved ones' names carved into granite touchstones surrounding the two memorial pools, this prescient boy left me with my own touchstone. "Life goes on," he said simply. His life, while it will never be the same, goes on. The world around him and us, while forever changed, goes on.

Words such as those can uphold us during trying times. And they also refute the evil underpinnings of the Sept. 11 attacks -- the desire to destroy our democracy, our economy, our way of life. The failure of that depraved agenda was evident all around me yesterday. Two presidents of the United States -- the current one and his predecessor -- presided over the first moments of silence, two men from very different parts of the political spectrum, but united in looking back in grief and forward with hope. Many other elected, public and civic officials attended the event, reminding me that, despite the polarization marking current political discourse, the United States' democracy that allows for divergent views and political shifts is an enduring value that we cherish.

Even the economic devastation that the terrorists hoped to wreak on the area symbolizing America's financial center has been defied. The lower Manhattan skyline is being reshaped as new buildings soar skyward, and more than 25,000 new residents have added vibrance, over the past decade, to a part of the city previously anchored solely by commerce.

Everyone who went through 9/11 has their story -- where they were, who they lost, what they experienced. What struck me then, and still does to this day, is the praise and gratitude for each other expressed by the countless educators I spoke to in the aftermath of the attacks. "Their story" was often about the heroism of a colleague, or a volunteer, or a first responder. Or the unbelievable feats they witnessed that day. Or the love, gratitude and appreciation their colleagues inspired in them.

We owe a debt to the men and women who put helping strangers above their own security -- above their own lives. We owe a debt to those we lost, to those who survived, and to the families who lost loved ones. We owe a debt to those who have entered public service fields in the years since, knowing that they will never know what awaits them when duty calls. Public service is a noble, selfless calling and ought to be honored as such.

We remember and honor those who gave so much 10 years ago. And we look forward, forever changed, but comforted knowing that, as a wise 11-year-old boy said, life goes on. May our lives and the life of our democracy be a testament to resilience and hope.