10 years ago I was working as a school nurse for the sixth graders' annual 5 day Nature Camp trip. This was always a fun experience for all, and highly anticipated by those of us fortunate enough to go. The week was carnival time for faculty, a "Get Out of Jail Free" pass or a Wonka Golden Ticket. It was five days of not sitting in a classroom. The kids were our responsibility for three meals and overnight, but otherwise they were herded like sheep from activity to activity and supervised by the camp staff for purposes of learning and soaking up the nature. Compared to school, it was a free for all. There was plenty I could have done instead of going; the first couple of weeks of school were always busy. Lots of consultations with parents and doctors, meetings with teachers, health plans for some of the more fragile kids. I had already spent two weeks prior to the first day of school preparing for the trip as well as for the kids in my school with health needs.
These 6th graders had just moved on to the middle school, but I knew them well; they had been my responsibility for grades 3-5, with their health problems, adjustment issues and daily boo-boos. Although there was a camp nurse who distributed meds, my presence was pretty much redundant. It was my guarantee of being there that sealed the deal for parents that their kids would be safe and well cared for. Oh, I checked peak flows and did asthma checks so as not to be awakened for nebs in the middle of the night for wheezy kids. I located the kids who forgot to show up for meds. I could tell by a look who needed special attention or a pep talk. I managed the diabetics exclusively. On occasion I made a trip to the ER for a few stitches (those kids always got treated to a burger or ice cream on the way back to camp but were sworn to secrecy). I always had a few kids who had never left home for as much as a sleepover, kids who were on the verge of illness, or kids who were allergic to everything including clouds. Every year there was one or two new kids who had moved to town and didn't have a single friend and arrived with some sort of medical issue. I gave the really nervous parents my cell phone number since we usually left for the trip only 3 days into the school year and the mostly middle school faculty were new to the kids. Up until that year, no one had ever called me although I did make a few calls home so they wouldn't worry too much. Since the kids were forbidden to use the phone, it was always appreciated.
My own kids were nearly grown; my daughter was 21 and had already started her 3rd year of college the week before. My son was starting his first year at a Boston area college the day after I returned. It was going to be a busy week and weekend, but it was all under control.
On that day, September 11, 2001, the kids were settling into their second day of after-breakfast activities with their camp leaders. The other 9 teachers and I had a precious 2 hours and 15 minutes until we were needed to chaperon free play time and then lunch for the kids. We were enjoying the beautiful sunny day on the deck overlooking a sparkling blue lake. It was summer still, but with that unmistakable crispness that meant fall would not be far behind. I remember how we admired the color of the sky and the green of the surrounding mountains, dotted with just a touch of red and yellow of early-changing leaves and how pretty it was as the view was reflected in the lake. Some teachers were milling around, reading the paper on the deck and enjoying a peaceful cup of coffee or just sitting and chatting. Two of my good friends were 5th grade teachers. We were making a plan to escape to Dunkin' Donuts for some adult time and maybe taking out a few sailboats later in the afternoon when the kids were with their learning groups. Joe, a grade 4 teacher drove up in his car.
"Hey", said Joe, "Something really bad happened in New York at the World Trade Center. A plane crash. I'm going down to the rec room TV to check on it".
We quickly followed, collecting most of the other faculty en route. I remembered that there had been a bomb attack maybe ten years earlier. I thought about the logistics of evacuating those buildings and what a nightmare it must have been. In my wildest dreams I could not have imagined the horror that was to come.
We sat riveted and in shock as the events of the day unfolded. It was like a bad dream; many of the teachers had tears streaming down their faces. One teacher was married to a National Guardsman, another to a federal agent; both wondered not if but when and where their husbands would be called to duty.
At some point, it occurred to us: "What do we tell the kids?".
I suggested that we tell them nothing. There were 10 of us, how could we handle the emotional needs of 180 kids who might have a grandfather who works in one of the towers, or whose aunt lives in New York, or
whose cousin works for an airline or the fire department?
Joe agreed. He suggested that we talk to the school principal; after all, it should ultimately be their decision. We could be called home right away. Parents would be calling the school and the camp. We had to be prepared for an onslaught of parents driving the two hours to scoop up their kids and bring them home and who could blame them?
Cathy was a 5th grade teacher who worried about the safety of us all. With planes targeting the Pentagon and White House as well as the Twin Towers, who knew what could be next? Was it safe to even be on the roads?
Two 6th grade teachers, Sally and Carl were the undisputed team leaders. They thought the best plan was to keep things as normal as possible until we heard otherwise. As a group we agreed, then scattered to meet up with our kids before lunch for 45 minutes of free time.
Joe went to find the camp director; Sally tried to contact the school principal and/or the superintendent's office. Overloaded telephone systems and a serious lack of cell phone service prevented her from reaching anyone. For the next several hours, in fact for the next three days, we were cut off from the world and on our own.
During the lunch break the camp staff taken off and briefed by their director, who ordered them to keep things as normal as possible for our kids. Some were unhappy about that, but we were insistent. They would stick to the program.
It was late afternoon before Sally was able to speak to anyone from school administration. They agreed with our course of action; they had had a meeting with parent organizers and the consensus was that as long as we, the faculty, were OK with staying, the kids would remain at camp; the only difference was that we would leave after breakfast on Friday and arrive home before 1 PM instead of 5 PM. Teachers on all three buses would brief the kids on the way home.
And so, as our country grieved for the lives lost, the threat to our freedom, and the near-destruction of our piece of mind, our kids learned and played. They bonded with teachers and classmates as a group, communed with nature, and made memories. They missed home a little, and school not so much. They had the freedom to eat peanut butter and jelly instead of veggie burgers, and some enjoyed their sloth, showering and wearing clean clothes only when compelled to do so. For three more days our students did all the normal things they had a right to do as kids. They did not have any access to TV's or newspapers; our only link with the outside world was a few moments of news casts several times per day and newspapers, which we kept hidden. The kids were isolated, not having access to either. We, their teachers, protected their innocence for just a few more days, shielded them from fear and from the rest of the world.
That Friday as I drove home, it seemed as though I had landed in another world; I had never seen so many flags flying from homes, schools, fire stations, police stations, public buildings. Hand made signs and banners proclaimed that we as Americans were still strong, that nothing would break us. There were pleas for vengeance and retribution. There were prayers for peace and for the families of the victims.
For Baby Boomers like me, the assassination of President Kennedy was a tragedy that changed a generation. For this generation, it is September 11, 2001.
But for our kids, our 180 students, our group of 11 year olds who had left home on a Monday and returned to a changed world on Friday, their experience was significantly different. In their before and after world of 9/11, there was a big pause filled with childish things, a right of passage unmarred by those attacks in our own backyard. The world stood still for most of us, but for these sixth graders life was as it should be.
I've often wondered how their experience at Nature Camp may have shaped their future; perhaps in a completely different way from most kids their age as they played and learned with their classmates in isolation from the sadness of the rest of the country.
I cherish a note written by one of the parents to the 10 of us who were with their children during one of the darkest moments in history to thank us for what we had done to shield them from the horrors of reality:
"Our kids did not watch TV; they did not see the horrible images or the constant replay of planes striking the Twin Towers. Thanks to you, our kids got to experience normalcy and innocence in a way that none of the other kids at school did, perhaps not anywhere in the country. We are so fortunate to have such dedicated individuals who put the needs of our children first when there was so much uncertainty in the world. Surely you feared for your own families, but never showed it to our kids. Thanks to you, we had 180 of the happiest kids in America".