Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Ever Mindful

When our family visited New York City in 2000, our hotel assigned to us Room 911. We joked about having a room number we could easily remember. Little did we know, 911 would soon become a number no American would forget.

One year later, an eighth-grade boy rushed down the hallway toward my classroom as students switched from first period to second. "Mrs. Prusik! New York City, the Pentagon--we're being attacked!"

"Who told you that?" I laughed, thinking his adolescent buddies had pulled one over on him for sure, but he persisted in his tale, so I turned on my AM/FM radio . . . and learned the truth.

As the tardy bell rang to begin second-period reading class, a room full of eighth graders looked to me, their teacher, for answers. Perhaps for the first time in my career, I had no words.

One girl looked up at me, her freckled face gone ashen, her eyes wide and brimming with tears. "Mrs. Prusik, does this mean we are going to war?"

That word crawled across my skin. Images of Pearl Harbor, Ia Drang Valley, Omaha Beach, Antietam filled my head. Images of injured, maimed, and fallen soldiers not much older than the kids who filled my classroom stabbed my heart. I stared at her, slack-jawed. In all my years as an educator, I had never wanted to withhold the truth from students, but in that moment, I did. I wanted to lie. To protect her. To protect us all.

I glanced out the window at the clear September sky. Ironically peaceful. Eerily quiet. How could I tell these stunned faces what I knew was sure to come? Goosebumps rising, I looked back at her through misty eyes.

"I'm afraid so."

A few weeks ago, I chanced upon one of those former students at the grocery store. A student who left my classroom as a boy . . . and returned from war a man. A man whose Army vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. A man who faces spinal surgery as a result of his injuries. A man who lost his buddy in that attack.

And a man who--even after all the tragedy he has experienced--says he will return to service after surgery if his body and the Army will allow. Why? Because of the tragedy he has experienced, he explained.

As I gazed into his determined eyes, I recalled that fateful September day, haunted by the shock, fear, and uncertainty in innocent eyes that looked to me for reassurance I could not offer. And I realized this former student knows that look too well. He's seen it in the eyes of children on the other side of the globe, where terrorists can enter classrooms at any moment, select children at random, and strap onto them vests wired with explosives.

Protecting the vulnerable--that's why he's willing to serve.

We will never forget 9/11, but may we be ever grateful to the brave men and women like my former student who risk their lives every day for the sake of others. Including strangers. Including foreigners. May we be ever mindful of their sacrifice.

And may we honor their efforts by living lives worthy of protection.

To those who offer yourselves in selfless service, thank you for sharing the gift!