Teachers and students at PS 150 learn how to bounce back
By Mary Lord
hen the students return to PS 150 this fall, they will find the usual gleaming floors and tidy classrooms. There's even new greenery flourishing on the barren brick plaza that serves as a playground. Only the quilts and other "treasured keepsakes" from September 11and sunlight where the World Trade Center's shadow once fellreveal just how extraordinary a normal back-to-school will be for the pupils and teachers at ground zero.
The world saw the choking clouds. But few caught the silver lining: how educators at schools like PS 150, just blocks from the twin towers, managed to evacuate thousands of students safely and then rescue the academic year. Their struggle to improvise lessons and soothe fears shows what marvels can occur when uncommon pluck meets everyday resilience.
September 11 was the fourth day of school at PS 150, known locally as the Tribeca Learning Center; the school at 334 Greenwich Street was home to 175 pupils from prekindergarten through fifth grade. Principal Alyssa Polack was talking to parents when a loud rumble engulfed them. "If that's a plane, it's flying awfully low," she thought. Soon mothers and fathers, some covered in soot, began streaming in to fetch their kids. After the first tower fell, FBI bomb squads ordered an evacuation. But to where? The designated emergency site, a neighboring elementary school, also lay in harm's way.
Leaving behind backpacks and cellphones, purses and pets, everyone headed north. Then the second tower tumbled. As the debris hurtled toward them, PS 150's cook, Amina "Annie" Singh, gathered kids under each arm and ran. Upon reaching a safe spot, teachers made sure everyone was accounted for before continuing a mile uptown to PS 3, which was to become their "temporary" quarters for five months. Students and teachers from other nearby schools had gathered there as well. "Kids were crying, and we had all that time to wait and think," recalls Roe Wrubel, a teacher at PS 89. "I had to tell them that everything was going to be OK when it was the last thing I felt." Nearly 9,000 students from eight schools around the World Trade Center got out safely that day.
But evacuation was the easy part. Now, educators had to salvage the school year, starting with empty rooms. "Nothing, not even paper and markers" greeted PS 150 teacher Danielle DeMaise. "We just kept putting up children's work to make it look like a classroom." Lacking desks, some children sat on the floor. Music and art teachers roamed from room to room like nomads, having left everything from instruments to paintbrushes behind. Scattered around the building and bereft of computers, teachers couldn't collaborate, receive E-mail, or hone lesson plans. Polack, whose "office" was a tiny, shared room, "walked around with a cellphone" attached to her hip, checking on far-flung classrooms and keeping a line open to anxious parents fretful over air quality and eager to yank their kids from the school. In the end, though, only 18 PS 150 families left. Donated supplies soon began pouring in, along with letters, money, and artwork from schools around the country. One particularly memorable gift: red, white, and blue caps a southern woman knitted for every PS 150 pupil.
For much of the fall, calming fears trumped academics. Social workers and psychologists counseled children, parents, and educators. Teachers learned to look for signs of anxiety: short attention spans, aggression, sleeplessness. And the children drew a lotmostly images of the iconic twin towers. Singh, the cook, stocked up on yogurt, cookies, ice cream, and other comfort foods. She also tucked love notes in the kids' lunches. Music teacher Tony Kunin emphasized friendship songs.
"Being a teacher means you learn to be creative with what you have," notes first-grade teacher Linda Jones. And improvise they did. With books still quarantined in her classroom, teacher DeMaise scrapped her unit on American Indians and, on a colleague's recommendation, launched into an investigation of minerals and geology. Her third and fourth graders studied the substrate under Manhattan. The unit on volcanoes proved a huge hit, perhaps, suggests DeMaise, because it showed that disasters exist in nature.
Marina Templeton hit upon the theme of myths after burying herself in fantasy books "because I really needed a break" from reality and figured her third and fourth graders did, too. They delved into C. S. Lewis's Narnia books and studied ancient gods like Neptune, the sea king. While Templeton missed her well-stocked classroom of eight yearsincluding the Red Slider turtles she returned to rescue with the National Guard's helpher students relished the assignment. If math and science suffered, few seemed distressed. And re-establishing routines proved key at all the schools near ground zero. "We felt the academics would ground the children," notes third-grade teacher Wrubel. "What I didn't realize was that the academics would help ground us, the teachers."
February 4's homecoming to Greenwich Street, replete with "P.S. 150 Is Back" chalked out front and a breakfast reception, felt weirdly like the first day of school. But first-grade teacher Jones noted many subtle improvements. Children who were inattentive or aggressive in their temporary digs grew calm. Then, one day, a pupil said something funny. Until that moment, Jones says, "I hadn't realized I'd stopped laughing." Students grew socially as well, forming deep friendships, particularly the graduating fifth graders, while teachers were reinvigorated. "It's been a phenomenal year," says Jones.
Trauma still lingers, however. Since September 11, students and teachers alike report being hypersensitive to aircraft overhead. Thunderclaps and loud noises in the street can provoke panic. Six months after the attack, a survey of New York City students found that 10.5 percentabout 75,000 kidssuffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and an additional 60,000 showed signs of depression. PS 150 students like Damon Isaac Smith still ask repeatedly, "Did they catch the bad guy yet?" And in June, music teacher Kunin was still taking a different route to school, to avoid seeing the gaping pit where the twin towers once stood. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't look out at the play area and can't believe those buildings are gone," he muses.
Still, most students and teachers seem to have bounced back, and they're eager to put "that day" and the frayed school year behind them. "It was like camping out," sums up PS 150's Templeton, who celebrated the end of the school year by taking her third graders to Central Park and releasing their turtles. "You do it, and you have great fun, and that's it."
That's why ground zero's schools aren't rushing to mark 9/11's one-year anniversary with teach-ins or memorial services. Some parents say they may keep their children home that day. If PS 150 does anything, it will be brief and without fanfare. But the best way to commemorate the horrific events of last September, educators and parents maintain, is to get on with a normal, productive school yeara luxury impossible to imagine just months ago.