A Question of Trust

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was teaching middle school in Durham. Before second period I passed the admissions director’s office and heard her chatting about a radio report that had just come in. I remember thinking, fleetingly, that it must have a been a single-engine plane (what else could our imaginations admit, back then), and briefly wondering how a tragic accident like that hadn’t happened sooner. Then I went back to work, prepping the class about to start.

A few minutes later, I was on the way the copier when I passed the head of the school, another teacher, and a parent who were having a fiercely-whispered, stand-up conversation in the middle of the commons that separated the elementary and middle schools. I was running late, but I was pulled in by their urgency. There had been another crash in New York; they were huge planes; we did not know what was happening, but it was terrifying, and we needed to decide what to do.

I remember someone mentioned the nuclear plant to our west, and wondered if it was in danger. There was concern for how to manage the chaos of a run on the school of worried parents. The parent (a Duke professor) commented presciently that “this was the end of civil liberties as we know it.” What next?

I volunteered that we should not tell the students, to avoid panic and maintain order. The head agreed, and we headed our separate ways. We must have stood there for less than a minute.

It is hard to remember a time when you could put a school on information blackout. Few student had phones, and the only internet was through four ancient PCs in each classroom that took ten minutes to boot up. But that’s the way we got through the day: pretending nothing was happening. The teachers sneaked TVs into their rooms to look in between periods, before (incredibly) turning back to their lesson plans to step oblivious children through the day’s spelling or science reading or verb declensions. As the day progressed, we became increasingly unable to hold that crazy boundary. By lunch some kids had been picked up by their parents, starting a rumor among them that I never really heard but could sense. We got the kids home safe; the defining news of their young lives waited for them after the carpool line, often from the lips of parents incredulous that they did not already know.

Like all of us, I carry burning questions from that day, but as a teacher none is more powerful than the question of whether we made the best choice. Where did my reflex not to tell the kids come from, that morning? Why did the others assent so readily? Was it because it seemed safest and easiest to stay the course? What was done to the kids, knowing that the grown-ups they implicitly trusted to act in their best interest chose to warp their world to one that better suited them for six hours, rather than let them be full members of the larger culture’s struggle that day to assimilate the unimaginable? Did we do right by them?

Perhaps I should be a little gentler with our deliberations and decisions that morning. A teacher lives life at the threshold of public and private, every day. She plans what she thinks will best meet the needs of her students, but those plans are always contingent upon what the day brings her. And she rarely gets a reflective moment before having to respond to what a student has brought in the room, or what the world outside the classroom forces upon her orderly direction. In school, class is always about to start: teachers need to do, first, to live without a net in front of the attention of those they are committed to serve. Only afterwards do they get to reflect on whether their doing was the best they could, whether it met the demands of the moment, what they should have done differently and hopefully will do better in the future.

Our first and deepest responsibility as teachers is to keep our students safe. The trust that we will act in loco parentis makes safety job one, the inviolable bedrock upon which any learning must stand. It is ours to be worthy of a fiduciary duty: we will use our judgment to make decisions on their behalf that their judgment won’t let them make in that moment. These two judgments look different for first grade teachers than they do for middle school teachers or college professors, of course, but a first principle at all levels of maintaining that trust is letting our students know that we will not lie to them. That we will not abuse our almost-total power over the borders of the sealed world of the classroom and pretend the world isn’t changing, when it is.

If I had it do over, I like to think I would have spoken up for telling our children the truth at that ad hoc policy session in the hall. Even though we did not fully understand it yet, even though it would up-end all of our normality, starting with the days’ lesson plans and ending with our deepest notions about safety and autonomy. That way, at least we would have come through that day with our students’ trust intact, even when everything else had been called into question. We would have enfranchised them in the culture we were equipping them to join, rather than affirming that, actually, our world valued false order over real chaos. As it stood, we showed that we valued our own institutional peace over the incipient horror of reality.

I do not remember how I met the students who came to school on the 12th, but I know I apologized to them for abusing their trust the day before. I remember spending the next several days with the TV and computers blazing in my room as we struggled together to understand what had happened and accommodate ourselves to its implications. I still took my fiduciary responsibilities to heart, I believe. I watched Web sites over their shoulders, trying to benchmark the insanity of reality to whatever index of appropriateness I could still muster – what, exactly, constitutes the Zone of Proximal Development for “capacity to understand horror”? I did not abandon them to violence. But I stopped pretending the world was something it wasn’t in the name of maintaining my own fictional equanimity.

And I promised myself that I would never betray my students’ trust to be honest with them again. That even when things happened that destroyed my own understanding of the way our world worked, I would be a companion to them as we worked together to find the next step, not a block to their development. That commitment is part of ensuring school is a place of real transformation, not just an institutionalized replication of existing power structures. It is the bedrock of trust.

On this day of so much remembering, it is my deepest lesson, and one I hope I help my students learn.

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