The 3:45 p.m. bell rang, signaling the end of the day, but none of the sixth-graders moved. They barely twitched, their rapt attention held by Sara Lashbrook’s harrowing story of evacuating kids from her kindergarten classroom Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City.
Lashbrook visited Jackson Hole Middle School on Wednesday to commemorate the 18th anniversary of terror attacks when airplanes hit into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and another plane crashed over Shanksville, Pennsylvania. She spent the final period in Michelle Rooks’ sixth-grade class, where Rooks taught a poetry lesson grounded in stories from that day.
“We’re going to talk about memorials today,” Rooks told the class.
She turned on a video called “The Man in the Red Bandana,” a 14-minute tribute to Welles Crowther, an equities trader who evacuated people from the 78th floor to firefighters waiting on the 61st. The film described Crowther’s upbringing as a hockey player and volunteer firefighter, his desire to return to a life of service after sitting in front of a computer on Wall Street and the ubiquitous red bandana he carried from the time he was 6 years old.
The attacks on the Twin Towers cut Crowther’s desired career switch short, but in his final moments he used the skills he developed as a leader on the sports field and as an emergency responder. Rooks’ class was silently engrossed as survivors from the day recounted how the man with the red bandana put out fires and led them to safety until the towers fell.
Then the students discussed poetic license and the power of punchy, pithy lines as they wrote a “name poem” about Crowther. The exercise involved heading the page with his name and using a few prompts to relay their understanding.
“OK, so the first line starts with ‘understood,’ ” Rooks said. “What did Welles Crowther understand?”
The students’ responses were spot on: bravery, how to save people, sacrifice, putting others’ safety above his own. After finishing their poems, with prompts on what Crowther might have said, hoped and dreamed, the students filed down the hallway to the gymnasium to hear Lashbrook speak.
“This was where my school was,” she said, pointing at an aerial shot of the towers’ collapse that showed a brick building just feet from the rolling cloud of dust. “And my classroom was on the south side,” facing the World Trade Center.
Lashbrook was just 23 years old that day, in charge of a class full of kindergarteners. After the planes hit, which sounded like “the absolute loudest thunder I’d ever heard,” she fought the urge to “collapse to the floor and start crying.” Some parents were at the school, and they grabbed their children. When the school was evacuated, Lashbrook led the rest of the students through a hectic mass of people down Manhattan’s West Side Highway.
She and her class walked 1.7 miles to safety. Partway there, she picked up a girl from her class who was struggling and carried her the rest of the way. At one point a man running alongside them reached out and held the girl’s hand, Lashbrook said, a moment of connection amid the chaos and confusion.
In the middle of her story, the bell rang, but it was as if the students couldn’t hear it.
“Should I keep going?” she asked.
“Yeah, keep going,” shouted the assembled, almost in unison.
But they had buses to catch and parents waiting in cars outside. Only after the students were assured they could finish the presentation during the flex period Thursday did they exit.