I remember it like yesterday. I was a private school principal in Los Angeles and we were a scant ten days into the school year when, early that September morning, we received the devastating news. The day was September 11, 2001. Early that morning we turned on our televisions and watched in horror the images of the terrorists attack on the Twin Towers in New York which killed thousands of Americans. There were unconfirmed reports of another plane headed towards LA and all public areas feared being the next target.
City officials contacted all schools just as the school day was about to begin to make them aware of the heightened terror alert status. Each school was given the option to decide whether to close school or run classes as usual. As principal, the decision fell on my shoulders. A quick telephone survey of neighborhood schools informed me that almost every other private school in my district had decided to close. I thought they were wrong. I kept my school open.
Teachers were all contacted and informed that classes would be conducted as usual. Many simply could not begin to understand why every other school was turning away arriving students while we were about to welcome them to class. To say that there was some justified hysteria would be putting it lightly. But, I kept school open.
The sequence of events of Hurricane Sandy on the east coast, which caused severe damage and left a wide swatch of devastation in its wake, led me to reflect on the reasons I acted as I did on that September morning. I believe that my thinking then highlights an important function of school leadership and is relevant to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
The first concern that had to be addressed was the physical safety of the children. Was there a real risk that keeping them in school increased the chances that they would be harmed? Public officials assured me that getting in a car and being driven home was probably more dangerous than remaining in school, so physical danger was not the issue. My second concern was for their emotional safety? Weren’t the children better off emotionally in their homes with their parents?
I thought not. I had almost no doubt that the students would go home and be glued to their television screens that September 11 th, watching over and over the horrific scenes unfolding before them. Very few parents would be there with them to comfort them or reassure them as to their own safety. Simply put, going home would expose them to the trauma of that tragic day without the guiding hand of a responsible adult that could mitigate the effects of that trauma.
I felt that this was the role the school had to play. We had to become the shield and the bandage. We had to ensure that they would be prepared for the horror they would surely witness when school was out and they turned on their televisions. It was crucial that we talk to them, explaining what we could, comforting when we could and providing appropriate assurances regarding their physical safety. Our teachers did an amazing job with our students and it soon became clear that we had indeed made the right call.
Educational leadership, whether as the head of a school or as the head of your classroom, calls for what I call anchoring. It means we must provide students with the skills required to weather life’s ‘frankestorms’. Perhaps it is one more parenting task that has now been placed on the school’s plate, but it is there and it must be addressed. Dealing with how to emotionally relate to Hurricane Sandy is no less important than teaching fractions, probably significantly more important. Thinking that these issues will be properly dealt with at home and do not enter the purview of school curriculum would be as unfortunate an error of judgment as was sending children home on that September morning. I once read a line which taught, “Suffering is not in the fact but in the perception of the fact”. If we can mitigate suffering we have indeed made a real difference in the lives of our students.