On September 11, 2001 I was stunned, like every other American. I didn't know what was going on or what to do. I felt compelled to give students a voice. This true story was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Spirit of America, 2016
The Feelings Flag by Linda O'Connell
I stood in my living room and cringed at the sight of the first plane hitting the first tower. I did not realize the horror had only just begun. As I drove to school I listened intently to the reports. Then, I heard that another plane had crashed.
I was as shocked and stunned as every other adult in my school. No one was sure what was going on. Teachers were asking one another, "Did you hear about the plane crashes in NY? Is America under attack?"
It was like a punch in the gut, beyond our comprehension. Everyone felt winded, worried, and wounded.
My preschool classroom was in the lower level of an inner city middle school. What I remember most is the panicked young man in the hall who shouted at me, "America is at war!"
"Calm down," I said. "Don't jump to conclusions. Nobody knows for sure what's going on. This does not mean war."
They insisted they saw it on TV and that military jets were intercepting other planes.
I walked into my classroom and watched as my students went about their school day, unaware of the attacks. My aide was capable, so I left her in charge.
I felt compelled to do something patriotic to relieve
the mounting tension and confusion the middle school students were feeling,
although I was not in charge of any of them. I cut
twelve-inch by two-inch strips of red, white and blue construction paper strips, the kinds kids use to create paper chains. I did not consult the principal or counselor. I acted on impulse. I visited each classroom and intruded on classroom teachers. I asked each if I might have a moment, then I said, "Nobody knows exactly what is going on. We've all heard rumors and news reports. It's a frightening time for all of us."
I passed out strips of paper to the students and asked them to write what they were feeling at the moment. Any fears, any words— anything would be acceptable. Some asked about spelling, and some asked if they should sign it.
"If you want to," I said.
I collected more than 200 strips and rolled them into loops, then I stapled them to the bulletin board in the cafeteria. I read an outpouring of emotional comments. "I am afraid." "I want to kick their butts." "Bomb them." "Why did this happen?" "What now?" "I want to go home."
I posted one after another, row after row, until an American flag took shape. Some of the comments were laced with misspelled words and profanity; some were smeared with tears. I did not censor. I rolled each into a loop and stapled every single one. I stood back and gazed at our"feelings flag".
At lunch I stood against the wall and observed teens and preteens, who were usually destructive with bulletin board displays, as they searched for their piece of that flag. I listened to them read their words aloud, owning their emotions, giving voice to their fears and frustrations, initiating conversations.
On that horrible day, when America came under attack, I didn't know if my actions would do any good. It just felt good to do something. My friend Tammy said, “With that spontaneous action, you gave children a voice when no one knew what to say."
The bulletin board flag stayed up for more than a week. Then the strips began disappearing as individuals claimed their sections... and their feelings.
(Thank you for reading my story.)