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With Their Eyes: High Schoolers Tell of 9-11
Written: Nov 23, 2002 (Updated Nov 23, 2002)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:Realistic portrayal of teens' language; powerful and poignant
The Bottom Line: A powerful, emotional, and intelligent look at September 11th by the students and staff of a high school at Ground Zero.
I was teaching on September 11th. It was only my second week at the school, and as a new teacher I'd been relegated to one of the more dismal classrooms in the building. It was a half-sized room originally constructed for special education classes, but that did not prevent the administration from cramming thirty boisterous fourteen year olds into the tiny room each period.
The one redeeming factor of the classroom (or so I thought before that second Tuesday of teaching), was the view. Framed in the window was the Sears Tower, the world's tallest building, and focal point of the Chicago skyline. When the sky is clear, it reaches up toward the blueness and shimmers like a jewel, sunlight dancing on its windows. When the sky is overcast, its upper stories become lost amid the clouds. At least my dilapidated classroom on the Southside was a room with a view.
Tuesday morning, that building was reaching up into blueness. After relaying what had happened in New York and Washington, thirty pairs of eyes roamed constantly to that window and the building framed in it. I found my eyes doing the same thing. Is it still there? Okay. It's still there. What about now? Okay. It's still there. When the military began flying fighter jets over Chicago, my students heard the planes, and they alternately began crying or rushed the window, ready to watch the Sears Tower crumble too. I raised my voice and called over them, "Sit down! It's only a military plane!" Not that I really knew that it was a military plane that we had heard, but because I sure as hell hoped that it was.
Half a continent away that same Tueday morning, there was another high school, with another crowd of fourteen year olds gathered around a window, and another teacher trying to maintain calm and order. Only there, the sounds that they heard were not military planes, and the buildings that had been framed in their classroom window were no longer there.
With Their Eyes: September 11th, the view from a high school at Ground Zero tells the story of the students, teachers, staff and administrators of Stuyvesant High School, a prestigious magnet school located four blocks from the World Trade Center.
The 3,200 Stuyvesant students were evacuated on September 11th after the Twin Towers collapsed and Manhatten became choked in a cloud of dust. Their school became a triage center, filled with body bags and exhausted rescue workers. The students were out of school for a while, and then attended classes at a rival high school while the Stuyvesant building staff attempted to pull the school back together. Classes did not resume at Stuyvesant until October. When they did, students, along with the help of their drama teacher Annie Thoms, set out to create a play that would record the history of September 11th. With Their Eyes is the result of that effort.
Students interviewed their peers, teachers, security staff, lunchroom staff, administrators and custodial staff. These interviews were transcribed into monologues wherein the interview subjects revealed their experience of September 11th and its aftermath. The monologues were assembled into a play, and finally into this book under the guidance of editor/drama teacher Annie Thoms.
It would be pointless to attempt to describe a writing style here, since the students who assembled these monologues took a completely different route than that of most authors. As they interviewed each subject, they tape-recorded their responses. Upon completion of the interviews, their responses were transcribed painstakingly, retaining the original speech patterns of the interviewee as nearly as possible. The monologues are recorded like poetry, with line breaks to indicate where the speaker paused. "Like", "okay", "uh", "I dunno", "you know" and the other interjections that pepper the speech of teenagers have been retained in the text. The monologues beg to be read aloud, as I found myself doing, often between tears. Some are eloquent. In others, the interview subject gropes for words that do not come. But the monologues are real.
"I usually don't get afraid easily but
I was really afraid.
I was-- I just felt it, this is really happening!
This just happens in
This isn't happening, this isn't real life,
and I just got scared."
Within the monologues, there are tales of courage-- the pregnant English teacher who remained with her students throughout the evacuation and returned to the building even when she was unsure of what the air quality might do to her unborn child, the custodians and lunchroom staff who returned to the building long before the students to help with the triage center that had been established there and to prepare the building for the return of the student body, and the school security officer who hurried to Ground Zero to help evacuate some children from another school and was caught in the second cloud of rubble as the North Tower collapsed.
"I got a call from my supervisor
to assist in evacuating P.S. 234 right over there on Chambers Street
protecting children from collapsing towers
making sure they're not trampled by the onslaught of people
circumstances that ordinarily I wouldn't have to face
if it wasn't for these, these bastards
and ah, you know, I could think of other names to call them."
"Then, you find out that you do have
and, oh my god, I could die, and you are aware of your mortality
in other words."
The collection of monologues is not only a report of what happened, but also a critique of the world's reaction to the September 11th tragedies. Students express anger at the tourists who turn up with disposable cameras to take snapshots of the wreckage, along with anger at those who would turn the tragedy into a money-making gimmick.
"One time, someone actually asked me to take a photograph of them,
of them looking,
kind of standing in a solemn pose with the wreckage as a backdrop
and I couldn't do it.
I nearly threw the camera at them, I just...
It made me sick."
With Their Eyes is poignant and intelligent. It is a work that deserves to be read, because it is something that goes beyond the solemn newscasts with moving background music. This book is about real people, their real thoughts, and their real fears. It is about the moment that robbed an entire school of children of their innocence, just as much as it robbed the United States of its own.
Appropriately, there are a few monologues where a child in high school manages to find words that awkwardly but truthfully encompass the feelings of an entire nation:
"I don't think we'll ever be normal
after what happened.
It made me mature a lot emotionally.
It made me realize,
not what I thought before...
a lot more fůcked-up people than I thought."
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