A memory I didn't know I had, and the bravery of teachers

Today was Jerusalem's most violent day of my time here.  The bus that was attacked, the route 78 bus, passes by my stop, and the attack occurred shortly after I boarded a bus operating on a different line. I'll never know for sure, but I believe that the particular bus that was attacked took on passengers at my stop while I was there. This post isn't going to (directly) be about that, though.

Today was also my first day as an English teaching assistant at the Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem, a network of integrated Jewish-Arab, secular-Orthodox schools in Israel that's been targeted for violence by Jewish extremists because of its integrated nature. I'll be working there every Tuesday for the remainder of my time here. I'm not great with kids and my past teaching experiences haven't been wonderful, but I'm pretty excited about it after today. This post isn't going to (directly) be about that either, though.

Unlike many millennials, I don't think 9/11 had much of a long-term emotional effect on me, even though I grew up in DC and was exposed to the traumas of the day more than many. I find that whenever I meet and start hanging out with new group of people, we share our 9/11 stories within a few meetings, and mine is always underwhelming. I was in 5th grade, and I remember going to P.E. class, being herded into the gym, and being told that something bad happened before being walked back to my classroom. I was a nascent news junkie at that point, and I wanted to go to the computer lab to find more information online, but they wouldn't let me go. When we got back to the classroom, our teacher read us a poem, and Michael Avedon made a stupid joke about death when it was over. Someone spread a rumor that the top 20 stories of the World Trade Center were knocked off, but that the rest of the building was fine. Then, my parents came and picked me up, and I learned the details of what happened. We went home, and I spent the rest of the day hiding in a corner of my room and reading baseball books. My brothers and I had a few days off, which we spent going on nature walks and such, and then we went back to school. Fortunately (and somewhat miraculously, given that I grew up in DC and have lots of family in New York), no one close to me was harmed, so it all felt kind of distant. My elementary school was under the approach path to National Airport, so I was kind of skittish for a few months every time I saw a plane fly over at a low altitude, but that was about it. It was all very memorable, but I certainly wouldn't call it a particularly emotional or traumatic memory, or what psychologists call a "flashbulb memory". Until today, that is.

I was in the school when the news of today's bus attack came out. I was in an orientation meeting in the teachers' lounge with my cohort members and one of the teachers, who was facilitating the meeting, when my phone buzzed with a news update. I read the news update under the table but I didn't say anything. Shortly after I read the article, another teacher came in, tapped the facilitating teacher on the shoulder, and briefly took her out of the room. As she came back in, I saw the look on her face, a sort of suppressed expression of fear, and it all came back to me. I remembered being in Kate Wassilew's 5th grade classroom at 9 am on September 11th, 2001 and watching the same process occur. I remembered her repeatedly leaving the room and coming back in with that same expression, that combination of terror and resolve to protect her students from experiencing the same terror she was feeling (I later learned that her husband was on a plane that morning, making her obligation especially difficult). It was a memory I didn't know I had, but it came back vividly today in that teacher's lounge. Shortly after this experience in the teacher's lounge, we headed off to a 4th grade classroom, where I watched as a teacher came in and explained to the public transit-riding students why they'd be escorted home by school staff that day, displaying the same sort of suppressed fear combined with outwardly expressed calm I'd seen earlier. The class seemed to take it in stride, for the most part. It was probably attributable to the unfortunate frequency of terrorism here and the skill of the teachers in suppressing their own emotions in order to serve the best interests of their students. 

I'd never really thought about it before today, but teachers have to be really brave in a way that's not often discussed. The particular sort of violence experienced in Israel is pretty unique to this context, but teachers everywhere have to deal with the problem of protecting their students from the emotional toll of violence in the community. In Israel, it's terrorism, but in the territories it's IDF raids and the like, and in America, it's probably mass shootings or something. In any context, the reaction is the same; one has to take in incredibly frightening and upsetting news, suppress the emotional reaction, and come up with a way to maintain composure while conveying this upsetting news to a group of children in a manner that makes sense for them. It's not part of the job description and it's an incredibly unnatural skill, and I was so impressed to see it in action as an adult. 14 years ago, my 5th grade teacher Kate Wassilew exhibited it perfectly, which probably kept 9/11 from becoming a lifelong trauma for me. I think that the teachers at Hand in Hand did the same for their students today. As I begin to work in a school during a violent and stressful time here, I hope I'm able to do the same for my students.