Monday, September 12, 2011

911 from the Other Side of the World

It’s a Wednesday morning not unlike other September days in Tauranga, a small coastal city on the North Island of New Zealand. Clouds skid across the sky; raindrops clatter on our steel roof. The phone rings, unusual for 7:30 AM, but in the six months we’ve been in New Zealand we’ve learned to expect early calls.

“I know you haven’t got a TV, but I think you want to know this.” It’s Carole, Phil’s cousin in Auckland. “Last night two planes crashed into the World Trade Towers in New York.”

No, we don’t have a television, but there’s one at the language school where we both teach. Phil and I turn on the radio, race through breakfast, and head downtown. We’re both too stunned to speak.

Like all Americans, we thought America was invulnerable. Now, like the rest of the world, we’re sure it’s under attack.

When we get to school, the staff is crowded around the one TV, which someone’s dragged into the meeting room. Maori, European, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder hypnotized by the footage of the towers collapsing again and again.

Students straggle in, their voices loud in Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Korean and a smattering of European languages. Most know the Twin Towers have been attacked, but lack the English to understand much more.

Our own minds still numb from the shock, we herd the students into the classrooms and attempt to calm them and explain what has happened. Our own English fails as we recount the details in simple terms they can understand.

In every student’s mind are the questions, “Should I go home? Can I get home?” We answer questions, reassure. All thought of English lessons for the day are forgotten, but the students receive practice in English they’ll never forget.

Gray clouds continue to darken the sky. A typical spring day in New Zealand. But nothing will ever be the same.