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9/11 20th anniversary: Local educators look back at classroom experience

SALISBURY —Tonya German was outside with an earth science class at South Rowan High School when the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

The class did not know what happened when they went back inside, but it was grim. Another teacher told her to turn on the TV. The students had questions and she had no answers.

“That was one of the times as a teacher you are just a real person with them,” German said. “I told them I did not know what was going on and we can see what we can find out together.”

German, now the principal at East Rowan High School, said everything that teachers had planned that day went out the window and school was not the same for days after as the country creeped back toward a sense of normalcy.

“A lot of people just wanted to be with family,” German said. “That’s what students needed at the time.”

German said it was a time to listen to the students speak about how it was affecting them and their families.

It was a time for teachers to be vulnerable as well. German’s brother was in the Air Force at the time, and she had a two-year-old daughter. She was concerned for both of them.

“I would share those moments with my students,” German said.

One thing that does not stand out to German with the older students is how many left that day.

Theresa Pierce, a retired teacher and two-time Teacher of the Year for Rowan-Salisbury Schools, remembers her fifth grade class dwindling to only about six students shortly after the first plane hit.

She taught science and history as part of a team at Granite Quarry Elementary at the time. She can’t remember who told her, but she remembers someone coming to her room, whispering the country is under attack and for her to lock her door.

She had no idea what had happened and it reminded her of growing up in the nuclear age, learning about possible attacks.

She locked her door and stayed calm, but they could tell something was wrong as they were called to check out one-by-one.

The few who were left ate lunch in silence, still not knowing what had happened. Pierce did not get in front of a TV or learn what had happened until after dismissal. After everyone was home safe the staff got together to learn what had happened.

“We all went to the office and we were briefed and watched TV,” Pierce said.

Pierce said it was devastating. She remembered her father talking about fighting in World War II and being thankful the war never reached the civilian mainland. He died shortly before 9/11.

Pierce said in the days following it was too hard to even begin to explain what had happened to elementary students. If she had been teaching high school the situation would have been different because it was a historic event happening in front of them. They would have watched what was going on and talked about it.

“There was a dark cloud for a long time,” Pierce said, adding she remembers pleas to give blood and join the military, as well as the sudden lack of violence on TV.

Many students did not come to school for a few days and she was hesitant to take her students outside for science experiments. Teachers were encouraged to talk to students about their feelings.

Pierce taught about the attacks every year after, and eventually she saw students who were too young or were born after the attacks.

“They didn’t get it and that’s OK,” Pierce said. “I told them to go find somebody in their family and let them tell their story.”

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