By NANCY SCHWERIN
Why? has been the question on the minds of Americans across the country. Who are these terrorists, and why would they want to do this to us? Everyone has similar questions, to which answers are hard to find. We watch analysis and continual updates on CNN, but it’s still on the edge of reason. Where then do children turn for answers, when the answers are out of reach.
Educators across the diocese have grappled with ensuring their students sense of security, helping them understand the unthinkable, and promoting a nonviolent attitude. What would Jesus do at a time like this?
Ken DeCook, principal of St. Anthony’s in Florence, said, “I talked with one third-grader for 45 minutes, and he asked me the same question three times — ‘Why?'”
He chose to tell the entire student body of 4-year-old kindergartners through eighth-graders a muted version of the Sept. 11 events. The native Manhattanite gathered the school for a prayer service that afternoon. He talked to them about what it was like to live and work in New York City, but still their question was Why?
The students went back to class, and DeCook encouraged teachers to answer their questions. “I told them if they didn’t know [the answer], tell them you don’t know,” said the principal, who wrote a personal letter of thanks and consolation to the firehouse where Franciscan Father Mychal Judge hung out. In Manhattan, DeCook lived down the street from the fire chaplain who died Sept. 11.
At St. Anthony’s, students asked the all-important question of what should we do with the terrorists. DeCook told them, “Let justice take its course. Let them go to court and be judged.”
Principals came to different conclusions on sharing the events of Sept. 11. The split came in telling the younger students or letting the parents address the situation. In either case, our diocesan educators reacted calmly and rationally to a ghastly situation. Parents were grateful for the patience with which educators answered questions and for the help schools offered through information sent home on helping children cope with tragedy.
Some principals shared the news with older students, in fourth through eighth, and decided to let parents talk with younger students.
At St. Martin de Porres in Columbia, Sandra Leatherwood, principal, told her oldest students, sixth-graders, but chose to let parents share the news with younger students.
There, the children’s questions were the same, what did we do for them to hate us and what can we do for them not to hate us?
“We’ve been leading them in prayer to change the minds and hearts [of the terrorists] and showing them that retaliation is not the answer,” said the principal.
The school guidance counselor spoke to individual classes, and the local Richland I school district counselor worked one-on-one with students as well as faculty members.
St. Martin de Porres is one of the diocese’s neediest center-city schools, but Leatherwood has planned to give a percentage of all the school’s fund raisers this year to the American Red Cross for the relief effort.
“We’re a school in need,” she said, “but there are others who need more than we do.”
Service projects and fund raisers have always been about helping those in need, but now the students are able to do their part for the relief effort through various projects.
“[The students] wanted to know if they’d be safe, why this happened, how could this happen, and what they could do,” said Notre Dame Sister Christina Murphy, principal of St. Joseph’s in Columbia. She told them they could do two things, “pray and let tolerance and patience begin here. I told them, ‘if someone hurts you, you don’t have to hurt them back.'”
The school has been collecting eyeglasses, sunscreen, and Dr. Scholl’s foot products for the rescue and search crews. The students will also give 25 percent of their October Fun-a-thon pledges to the relief effort.
Service projects in several schools have been to reach out to local emergency workers. St. Joseph’s sent breakfast to the fire station near the school with a note of thanks from the students. In Rock Hill local emergency personnel received thank-you notes from the first-graders from St. Anne School.
At St. Paul’s in Spartanburg, eighth-graders collected socks for rescuers, and seventh-graders raised about $300 for Catholic Charities. Fifth-graders made red, white, and blue ribbons, which they sold and raised around $300. The local fire chief received a standing ovation when he came to the school for a prayer service and to receive the donation from the fifth-graders. The money was to be sent to the N.Y. Fire Department.
The fire chief told the students that the firefighters in New York didn’t lose their lives, they gave their lives, and they are all very proud that they were able to respond as a group.
Wednesday, Sept. 12, was a day of mourning and prayer in the diocese; students were out of school, and parishes held special Masses.
Fred McKay, principal of St. Anne’s in Rock Hill, said having Wednesday off from school allowed everyone to digest the previous day’s events.
“It was especially important for adults, teachers and administrators, to catch their breath. We were running on adrenaline on Tuesday,” he said. Wednesday helped to prepare the educators to face their students the next day with the question ‘why’ once again.
McKay and his assistant principal addressed the students, fourth through eighth and first through third respectively, with a prepared and general statement on Sept. 11.
“We let them know there were plane crashes, and it seemed to be on purpose, and we didn’t know why,” said McKay. “We told them that there are people in the world that don’t like us and that a lot of people probably got killed. We didn’t know a lot of answers, but it is OK to not know and have questions, and it’s OK to be sad.”
They gathered the students at 2 p.m. to tell them the news and join in a prayer service, which was attended by many parents who were grateful for the school’s handling of the situation.
During the coming week, classes at St. Anne’s began an impromptu lesson on the Middle East and world religions. They emphasized that no religion would allow this act of terror and worked to head off any prejudices before they could start.
“Things are going OK,” said McKay. “The older kids understand it’s not over; they see the bigger picture a little more.”
Part of the bigger picture is in our own communities; local military personnel called to duty.
Students at Christ Our King/Stella Maris School in Mount Pleasant collected packages of snack food items for military personnel at the Charleston Air Force Base. They thought the men and women who are on 24-hour duty, unable to leave their post, could use a snack. Local airmen, touched that they were remembered in such a personal way, came to the school to receive the student’s collection.
By all accounts, the teachers dealt with the tragedy in their classrooms in a professional manner. Despite having their own worries and doubts, they made the students feel safe and answered their questions as best they could.
“They’re doing a beautiful job,” said Our Lady of Mercy Sister Veronica Janas, principal of St. Mary’s in Greenville, of the teachers. The upstate school joined with schools across the diocese in a National Day of Solidarity, Sept. 18.
The National Catholic Educational Association declared the day of solidarity to serve two purposes: “to remind all of us that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. And to recommit ourselves to the principles of the Gospel especially of justice, charity, faith and hope.”
Prayer is one way that people everywhere can contribute to the relief effort. Several schools in the diocese have been saying the peace prayer of St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.