On Sept. 11, 2001, I was teaching fourth grade. A colleague entered my room and whispered that a plane struck one of the World Trade Center towers. The gravity of the event didn't register and we went on with the lesson. As the morning wore on and a second plane struck, the reality began to set in. Distraught parents drifted in to take their children home, and we took turns huddling around a TV monitoring the tragedy.
The building principal, young and new to her post, asked me to address an assembly of remaining students. I tried to reassure them as we gauged how many students lived with family members who worked in the city, and then we let walkers and bus riders leave. For the next several hours, teachers, support professionals and administrators walked through the community together, making sure none of our students were wandering the streets or waiting for someone to come home who might not return.
Sept. 11, 2001, touched all of us. The pages of NYSUT United, as well as our Facebook page, are filled with members' reminiscences of that day. Some will make you cry while others might make you smile. They will all make you ponder how the events of that day and the days that followed define us today.
One of my most vivid memories of that tragic day was watching with awe and admiration the response of firefighters, police, health care professionals, municipal workers and other emergency personnel. Many of them lost their lives or jeopardized their health to help and support others.
NYSUT members who served as military reservists were called into action. Educators had to make sense of it all for their students while grappling with their own sense of horror and loss. Trade unionists and other workers labored in the rubble at Ground Zero, in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon to recover and to rebuild.
What did we call these women and men? We called them heroes. And that's exactly what they were, even as they shunned the title. They dedicated themselves to selflessness and to pulling our nation out of its most desperate and frightening time.
What I remember most about that day was the simple way we shared roles and responsibilities; how we valued one another's thoughts without regard for title or position; and how we remained focused on the goal of seeing each child home safely - as the first responders focused on rescue and recovery.
The American dream was shaken, and all we could think of was keeping it together.
Today we face the American dream shaken again. Not by a terrorist attack or a foreign invader, but by economic stratification and hardship. Political discord is the norm. Finger-pointing and scapegoating trump collaboration and equitable sacrifice. Middle class workers, public employees and union members are vilified for what they have instead of appreciated for their labor, while the wealth divide grows ever wider with no compromise in sight.
Sisters and brothers, it is for us as workers and unionists to seize the opportunity offered in remembering Sept. 11. We must redouble our efforts to protect the American dream for the middle class and to increase the opportunities for others to achieve that dream. In this way, we will truly honor those lost and those who sacrificed for others - and for the American dream.
Dear Reader: My hope is to reference the American dream in each issue of NYSUT United this publishing cycle, for it is that dream that defines our mission and the fruits of our labor.