Reflections on 9-11

I taught English at the World Trade Institute Language Center on the 55th floor of the World Trade Center for five years in the 1990s. An overlooked incident in 1993 probably saved many lives on 9-11. The first bomb attack happened on my day off, thank God! I was home with my baby, whom I had wheeled in to the office to meet colleagues just days before the bomb blast. A truck full of explosives went off in the lower parking area of One World Trade Center, killing six people. My co-workers and students reported that the first floor rippled as waves of explosives blasted out and up from the basement. Our secretary, who was a Port Authority employee, lost her best friend.

Fellow language teachers told me about the chaos that ensued. They had no idea what was going on. Several listened to the radio or TV in their offices, where reporters were telling them to break windows to let the smoke out. There was no fire alarm, no sprinklers, no plan for evacuation. It took my colleagues four hours to get down the stairs. The Spanish language teacher told me that everyone was calm, that they let a pregnant woman pass in front of them. Nobody panicked. When he finally got to the bottom, he noticed that all the evacuees had little black mustaches from breathing in smoke and fumes. Ironically, he offered people cigarettes to comfort them as they emerged into the bright sun.

By 9-11, the World Trade Center parking garage was too secure for another car bomb. However, there were some positive changes: an evacuation plan was in place, and each floor had a fire chief. It may not have worked perfectly, but when the unimaginable horror of a plane crashing into the Twin Towers occurred eight years later, communication was greatly improved, and tens of thousands of occupants were able to evacuate successfully.

We had just moved back to the U.S. from five years overseas when 9-11 took place. I was one week into my new teaching job, and we were in a new neighborhood. We had just met the elderly ladies on either side of the house – who had given me their phone numbers “just in case.” My boys were in two different elementary schools and were scheduled to walk home from their separate bus stops after school. Normally, I would have arrived home just minutes after they did, but on 9-11 I needed to stay late at school with students waiting for the bus. My new neighbors came to the rescue, each one happy to greet a child and walk home from school with him. After 9-11 I arranged for the boys to attend the YMCA after-school program. After 9-11 I got a cell phone. After 9-11 I had my children carry an Ident-a-Kid safety card in their backpacks and I made sure they had the neighbors’ phone numbers.

After 9-11 I flew an American flag on my porch and felt a surge of pride and patriotism. We were living in a house in suburban Washington DC that was on the flight path to Andrews Air Force Base. I couldn’t sleep for many nights, as I heard huge transport planes fly overhead at 3:00 am, wondering if they were going to drop bombs on me. Irrational fear soon gave way to a feeling of resilience. I was part of a competitive women’s rowing team at the time. We resumed early-morning practices on the Potomac River after about a week. One morning, a police boat appeared at 6:00 am on the pre-dawn Georgetown waterfront asking to see our coach’s permit to operate a motorboat. Suddenly I didn’t feel so reassured. That same week, a police officer stopped me on K Street by pointing what I thought was a gun directly at my oncoming vehicle. It freaked me out. It was one of those speed detectors, but I thought he might shoot me. I was shaking as I pulled away with a ticket for “speeding” in a 25-mph zone. Other security measures took over and somehow I felt less confident in my political leaders than I had before. I took down the American flag.

So much of our mindset has changed since 9-11, especially in terms of airport security and travel. One unpleasant side effect is that we may be less trusting of strangers than ever before – I certainly think that 9-11 turned public opinion against Muslims. I was sharing an office space with a young mixed-race Muslim teacher at the time. She told me that fellow educators were coming up to her and saying, “I know you have nothing to do with this…” or they were saying, “I’m sorry.” She was puzzled by their reactions. She told me that the police came to her house because neighbors reported “a lot of parties” where they thought they saw Mohammed Atta, one of the terrorists. In the immediate aftermath of 9-11, I asked her if she felt more Muslim or more American. She answered that she felt more Muslim. I understood why when she told me how her colleagues and neighbors treated her differently.

This summer when I traveled to Germany, I saw more women in hijab than I’ve ever seen in my seven years of living in three different Muslim countries in Africa. I saw women covered from head to toe in black veils – some even had their hands covered – walking next to husbands wearing shorts and polo shirts. It was shocking to me, coming from the DC area, where I see people from all over the world – often sitting in my classroom. I tried to understand why they were so covered up. I spoke with a woman from Munich who expressed what seemed to be a racist attitude. But she explained that her government granted refugees 800 Euros a month and a place to live; they had an obligation to try to fit in with her culture a little more. She said that families were given prime real estate with an enviable view of the lake, but turned it down because 200 years ago, pork had been prepared on the premises. I could understand her point.

Has 9-11 created an anti-Islam world? I don’t know, but I certainly hope not. There are educated people out there trying to improve understanding between cultures and religions. I follow the writings of Asra Nomani and the Muslim Reform Movement. I know that I work hard to stay informed about what is happening around the world in this scary election year. I hope that Americans will vote based on hope rather than fear. There is room for divergent opinions in a post 9-11 America. Let’s move toward a brighter future where we can accept one another’s differences and invite discussion about the commonalities we share. Can’t we all just get along?

Domestic violence in the classroom

This NPR story about domestic violence and how it affects every student in the classroom is relevant to me. When students act out, you have to wonder what’s going on at home – but this data is alarming! Is it true that 10 to 20 percent of my students experience domestic violence!? Wow! Based on student behaviors in some of my English Language Learner classes, I think the percentage might be on the high end. Students are often reluctant to discuss what is happening at home, but I have the unusual fortune of getting to know students over many years and, once they feel safe with me, they will reveal what’s happening in their lives. Sometimes it’s shocking. Like the student a few years ago who stopped coming to school because she was worried about her stepfather beating her mother while she was gone. The student rationalized that she needed to stay home to protect her mother. In those days teachers did not have the same reporting requirements that we have today. I referred her to the counselor and made a copy of an essay she wrote – in case Child Protective Services was called in. I don’t know what happened to her, but I hope the cycle is broken now that she’s in the USA where help is available (see below).

It’s early in the school year, and I already see the cries for attention. We have so few counselors for the number of students who need help. I hope to be the one person who shows respect to them, who listens and who cares. I feel gratified that one of my seniors, who had me as a freshman, has written in a letter stating that she always felt relaxed the moment she walked into my classroom. That makes me feel hopeful that this year I can be that refuge again. I really love high school students and I love teaching. It’s a privilege and an honor to help develop the workers and leaders of tomorrow.

Here is a link to Domestic Violence Help in Montgomery County MD:

This year will be different

I spent the first day of school on an international flight from Munich, where I attended the most spectacular wedding I will ever experience. I’m so glad my nephew married a German girl so that I could visit that Bavarian city and get a taste for lederhosen and dirndls, bier gartens and trains that run on time. This is the first time in 16 years I’ve missed the first day of school and it was well worth it.

The reality check came when students showed up this morning expecting something from me and I could barely remember how to turn on the smart board. As an ESOL teacher I get to know my students pretty well from year to year. The best part is seeing last year’s students after a long summer. They look a little older, a little more relaxed and happy to be back. M.B. told me she spent six weeks in summer school, has passed all her exams and is proud to be a senior. Finally. She gave me a hug. I love the nervous smiles of the new kids in each class, the posturing of the familiar faces back for a second (or third) year of Ms. Sullivan. Poor things! And I love the excited wishes and goals that each student brings at the beginning of a new school year.

What’s going to make this year truly memorable is that I will be teaching Honors English 12 for the first time. And what happened today leaves me feeling both nervous and thrilled at the same time. First of all, they asked me how the wedding was. That means they read my letter to them. Second, most had completed the homework assignment and written a letter back to me! A couple of students even asked how to turn it in online! They were already ahead of me. (They don’t get their new passwords until tomorrow.) I quickly calculated the rapid succession of successful events that must have taken place, and I stood with my mouth agape. Or maybe it was jet lag. Not one of the 29 students asked to go to the bathroom. Wow, I thought to myself. This year is going to be a really different experience for me.

Don’t get me wrong – I love teaching ESOL. But after so many years, it’ll be a welcome challenge to work with students who already know the culture, whose language skills are developed and who understand the idiomatic expressions in my lame puns. I shared some of my hopes and goals with them and I can’t wait to read about theirs. I hope to learn from them as much as they learn from me. I have high expectations for all my students, but today I realize that these Honors students will also have high expectations for me. This is the best kind of challenge to come back to. Each of us will work hard because those around us are motivated by the same thing. Seniors. Who are motivated. This year will be different and better because of my students.

It’s hard to believe I was in Munich yesterday morning. Now can I go to sleep? Gute Nacht!


How to get over your mid-life crisis

Last week my midlife crisis ended. Just like that, from one day to the next. It was ushered out with great fanfare while I was surrounded by friends and family at a Mexican restaurant in New York City. Everyone toasted to my health, we drank margaritas, ate delicious burritos and fajitas and took lots of photos. I particularly like the one of me in an enormous black and gold sombrero blowing out the single candle stuck into a small lump of flan. People came out of nowhere and started singing and clapping. The next morning I woke up and my midlife crisis was gone.

You may have figured out that it was my birthday. And the reason my midlife crisis is gone is that I am no longer middle aged. Last week I celebrated my 60th birthday and (to misappropriate Sartre) I have entered the infancy of old age. I’m trying to digest the fact that I am now old. I continue to fret about health issues, my career, my marriage & family, and the long bucket list of things to do while I still can. But it’s different now. I feel like a huge burden has been lifted. Being 60 makes me feel free to do what I want without apologizing. Skip dinner to keep working on my memoir? Sure. Head off to the beach for the weekend with a good friend from college? Why not? Buy a $200 pair of shoes? I’ve worked hard for my money, and I can finally spend it on a luxury item. I’m fortunate that my husband is supportive of my pursuits. We’ve weathered the middle-aged storm together and, like victims of a flood or fire, we’re looking around for the best of what we had together to take into the future. Most of what we had is good, and now we can leave behind what wasn’t.

After a lifetime spent fulfilling other people’s expectations, my time has finally arrived. I no longer feel guilty about going in my own direction, sometimes alone, sometimes with others. I no longer have patience for people and situations that drain my energy and make me doubt myself. I am grateful to be surrounded by good colleagues, caring neighbors, and friends and family to help me take the baby steps into old age. Just as new parents coo and clap when their baby learns a new skill, my social network is cheering me on, sometimes literally – as they did at the Mexican restaurant. I know it’s a cliché but “we’re not getting older, we’re getting better” is really true.

My advice on how to end your midlife crisis is this: find people who support your crazy ideas and reach out to them as often as possible. Stop focusing on your imperfections and start taking steps toward one goal on your bucket list. For me, my goal was finishing my memoir and taking it to New York to try to find a literary agent. I pitched it to eight agents at a conference, and all of them would like to see my manuscript. I think good things come to those who are plodders. I’ve worked on this book for nearly five years while teaching full time, coaching a rowing team and raising two children. Writing was always a secret passion of mine, and now I’ve got a finished book and a blog where I can write whatever I want. Maybe somebody will read it and be inspired.

Just as an infant takes baby steps before learning to walk, I am taking baby steps into publishing. I’ve kept a diary or journal all my life. It’s a new experience to share my thoughts and opinions with others. I am thrilled to realize the power of my words. I’ve had a lifetime of hiding my truth because I didn’t think anybody would be interested. What turning 60 has taught me is not to be afraid of being judged by others. I have something to say and I’m putting it out there. I don’t expect singing and clapping, but I’m kind of enjoying this second childhood.

“I wrote in order to write. I don’t regret it; had I been read, I would have tried to please. I would have become a wonder again. Being clandestine I was true.”

– Jean Paul Sartre


Why ignore champion women rowers?

While most of America is focused on the darling gymnasts and the freakishly talented swimmers from my great state of Maryland, there’s almost no coverage of America’s greatest athletic success story: the U.S. women’s rowing team! For 10 years the women’s coxed Eight has dominated international competition. In this this wonderful New York magazine article there’s a complete story about their wins. But there’s almost no coverage of their phenomenal racing during the Olympics. What gives? Is this more of the sexism that’s been on display? Like the Chicago Tribune story that, instead of reporting on the Bronze Medal winner’s success, mentioned her only as the wife of a Bears football player.

I’m proud to be a long-time member of U.S. Rowing. I’m old enough to remember when it was the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen, but fortunately that name changed as more and more women poured into boathouses and insisted on equal treatment. Why hasn’t the coverage of women’s sports on network TV kept up with the times? Is it because they’re not wearing sparkly outfits? Come on, NBC, you can do better!

Speaking of outfits: one of my coaches participated in the 1976 Olympics, the very first one that allowed women to compete in rowing. In one way, we’ve come pretty far: she told us that their uniforms for the Opening Ceremony consisted of a purse and a hysterically funny and anachronistic undergarment – a girdle! Can you imagine asking Olympic rowers to wear something designed to hold in a fat stomach?! It makes me angry to think that our news coverage hasn’t gotten much past this era.

I am so proud to be part of a sport that offers such powerful, confident women a chance to compete and dominate on the world stage. I know that they don’t look anything like me – or like most Americans, for that matter – but they are my heroes. I have some idea what it takes to get to their level (and I don’t mean height), and I wish that they were getting the respect that they deserve.

So here’s to Katelin Snyder, Amanda Elmore, Eleanor Logan, Meghan Musnicki, Tessa Gobbo, Lauren Schmetterling, Emily Regan, Kerry Simonds, and Amanda Polk.


Boys in the Boat

When I first rowed in college (1978), people said our boat had been in the 1936 Olympics. At the time I thought it was a joke, but now I’m not so sure. We were a ragtag startup team at WVU. We kept our shells in an old tractor-trailer truck behind the lumberyard on the Monongahela River. That thing was so heavy that our old coach made the men carry it for us! Of course, that could have just been because he was 70 years old and didn’t have a clue how to coach women – it had never been done before!

I’m excited that The Boys in the Boat is coming to PBS on August 2nd, just in time for another Olympics. I read The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown when it first came out in hard back. The oddly-stylized first 50 pages really annoyed and distracted me – as if Brown were writing a 1930’s news article instead of a book for a modern audience. It was also clear to me that he wasn’t a rower. But the story is so compelling and well told that I slogged through – and was immensely rewarded. Back then rowing was still the sport of gentlemen, and the strapping young loggers and woodsmen of the Northwest had a distinct advantage over their elite East Coast rivals. After all, it was only 16 years earlier that Jack Kelly, the father of famous actress Grace Kelly, was excluded from the Royal Henley Regatta in England because he was a bricklayer. It didn’t matter that he had won dozens of U.S. Championships; the fact that he was a manual laborer was enough to ban him from the regatta.

When I first started rowing it was still very much a sport for men, but things were changing rapidly. I moved to Washington DC in 1979 and joined Potomac Boat Club on the Georgetown waterfront. We had a small bathroom, but no showers or lockers for women were available, not yet. There was one group of women already rowing there; they had all graduated from Ivy League schools, where Title IX had guaranteed some access to the sport for women. They were much better than my motley crew of WVU graduates and friends of friends. I used to telephone about 20 people every night just to get enough young women to put together an Eight for the next morning. The women already rowing at Potomac Boat Club didn’t talk to us for two years – not until we announced that we were planning to race at the Head of the Charles in 1981. We hired a coach, added to our practice schedule and improved so much that we combined forces with the MIT-Georgetown-Wellesley alumnae for my first races after college. To prepare for Masters Nationals, we often practiced twice a day. I didn’t own a car, so I biked down to the boat club at 5:00 am, worked eight hours, biked back down to row in the evenings, then biked home through Rock Creek Park, straight uphill to my house on Military Road. I was in really good shape. Rowing was my life for an intense two years. Then in 1982 I joined the Peace Corps, moved to West Africa and didn’t row for another 18 years. Rowing has shaped my life.

Potomac Lights at Masters Nationals, 1982
Potomac Lights at Masters Nationals, 1982


Be careful what you ask for

This summer I’ve had the good fortune to get everything I’ve asked for. I really shouldn’t complain, but I am so busy now that the summer is flying past and I haven’t even been to the pool once! The To Do list hasn’t gotten any shorter and I’m almost in panic mode. So I’m taking a deep breath, metaphorically, to tap into an overwhelming feeling of gratitude.

First, I was able to spend two entire, uninterrupted weeks with my mother in West Virginia. She is elderly and getting more forgetful and frail. I cooked dinner, planted flowers in her front yard, and I fed the neighborhood cats that gather on her back porch. These little things make her so happy. We drove along the Ohio River up to Point Pleasant, where the Silver Bridge famously collapsed in 1967 following all sorts of paranormal activity. We went to the Mothman Museum and she was a good sport, posing with a 6-foot black figure with red eyes just for a good photo opportunity. Every moment I spend with my mother is a gift. What is it about trying to help other people that makes one feel so content?

Second, I was given a summer organizing job I applied for with the teachers’ union. It’s something that I truly support – going out and having conversations with new (and not-so-new) teachers to find out what makes them tick. I used to be in advertising sales, so meeting with people and listening to their stories comes naturally to me. Who knows what will come of these collective conversations? But I met a guy who lives in my neighborhood – on my street! I didn’t know him before and now I do. If nothing else, at least I can say hi when I see him around. I value the face-to-face interactions that become so difficult once the school year starts.

Third, I asked to teach one English class next year. Instead of a class with new ESOL students with interrupted education, I’ll be teaching an Honors English 12. I’m really excited and, I’ll admit, a little nervous. I’m rereading all the classics I’ll be teaching – Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, The Stranger. I’m looking forward to interacting with students who will actually read for homework, and aren’t afraid to share their opinions. It will help me grow as a teacher and a professional.

And finally, I’ve been asked to race on Saturday. I’m too out of shape to pull an oar through the water in competition, but I will be sitting in the coxswain seat tomorrow and taking charge of a 8x at Diamond States in Delaware. I’m excited and nervous because we might actually win and they’ll toss me in the water if we do. That’s better than swimming in a pool, isn’t it?

The way I look at it is, if you don’t put challenges out there to yourself – especially as you get older – then you risk getting stuck in a rut. I feel the clock ticking away the summer days, but each morning I wake up excited to start on something new.

Now I can cross one more thing off my To Do list.