When the Sky Falls: Workplace Community and the Lessons of 9/11

Updated: Feb 18, 2019

On September 11, 2001, I was working as a counselor for adjudicated and at-risk youth at a private school in southeastern Pennsylvania; about an hour-and-a-half from Manhattan.

We had a typical morning gathering with our students. We held a circle. Staff and students did a short “check-in”, saying something about how they were feeling that morning. We discussed some goals for the week, then everyone went off to class.

Around 8:45 EDT, like everyone else around the world that day, we realized that something terrible was happening.

This was before the era of smartphones. Teachers and staff who were in the habit of playing the radio during class, like the shop and art teachers, were the first to hear what was happening.

I started seeing staff walking down the hall looking odd and shocked. My first thought was to wonder who was absent that day. Our school had many students struggling with drug addiction and trying to break away from various kinds of criminal behavior. Was one of them hurt? Did someone overdose?

A quick meeting was called in the counselor’s office.

The first plane had just hit the North Tower. Initially, we all assumed it was a terrible accident. Many of our students were from New York and had family in living in the city, but we still decided to do nothing yet. We would wait until more information was available.

Then the next plane hit the South Tower. Then the Pentagon was hit. Then another plane crashed in western Pennsylvania. What the hell was happening?

The staff were bewildered. Nothing like this had happened in most of our lifetimes. We didn’t have a template or script for what to do next. Our responsibilities that day paled in significance compared to the horrors that victims and first responders faced, but we felt overwhelmed.

We were momentarily paralyzed. Eventually, we realized that regardless of how we were feeling, it was wrong to withhold the information from staff and students any longer.

The most interpersonally savvy young people were already starting to ask if something had happened. They could see that the adults were upset. Just like my first reaction, they assumed a classmate was hurt or in trouble.

Not knowing what else to do, we did this.

We called another circle in our main meeting room. First, we told them everything we knew. We also told them everything we didn’t know. We assured them that as far as we knew, our local area was in no immediate danger. Our school was in a town of no great importance, but still… no one really understood what was happening yet.

Next, we said that we would go around the circle, in order, and one-by-one. We used something called a talking-piece; a small object that we passed from person to person. Whoever had the talking-piece was the only one who could talk. The others would listen.