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9/11: A Year After / WHO WE ARE NOW

Sandra Kay Daniels

'Looking at his face, you knew something was wrong. I said a little prayer for him.'

September 11, 2002

It was while attending a second-grade reading class at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., to promote his education reforms that President Bush learned America was under attack. In the presence of her VIP guest, teacher Sandra Kay Daniels, 45, conducted the day's lesson, which centered on a story about a pet goat.


"When [White House Chief of Staff] Andy Card came and whispered in President Bush's ear, I knew something serious had happened. My heart sank. You just don't walk in and talk to the president when he is engaged in an activity and on live television.

I knew something was up when President Bush didn't pick up the book and participate in the lesson. Mentally, he left me. I still didn't know what had happened. He said, 'Mrs. Daniels, I have to leave now. I am going to leave Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan here to do the speech for me.' Looking at his face, you knew something was wrong. I said a little prayer for him. He shook my hand and left.

When the president first came into the classroom, he was so personable, he greeted the kids, there was excitement in the air. When he got the news, he was a whole different person, his demeanor changed. I saw a very gentle man come in my class, and when he exited he had nothing but business on his mind. He had something to do, and he was going to do it. But I had reporters, TV cameras and 16 children sitting in front of me, so I had to go on with the lesson.

Then they called me into the president's holding room to tell me what happened. A Secret Service man said, 'I have to tell you why the president left.' I said I was glad somebody was going to. When I heard, I said, 'Is this happening in the United States of America? Is this happening here?' I heard what the man said, but I didn't comprehend it. And then I just lost it emotionally. He grabbed me and consoled me.

But I had to get it together because I still had the kids in the room and I had to tell them what happened.

Of course, the kids wanted to know why things hadn't turned out as planned. I had seen the TV monitor in the holding room, and I had to judge how much to tell the children. Remember, these are second-graders, so I explained what a terrorist is--that just like there are good people in the world who do nice things to you, there are terrible people who do bad things. I told them the terrorists are mean people who do mean things, and that some people were hurt, and that President Bush had to leave. He was here for a while taking care of reading business, I told them, but now he had to take care of something more important. He had to take care of the whole United States.

We went over what a hijacking is, and how the planes were run into buildings. And I turned the TV set on. At that time, both [World Trade Center] buildings were still standing. Then I clicked the set off. I didn't want the children to be horrified seeing people covered in smoke and soot. The children wanted to know, if people had been hurt, who was going to take care of their children?

Reflecting on that day, when we got the news, everything was in slow motion. We were on a high, watching the president's entourage. I was peeking through my vertical blinds in my classroom just to see the motorcade. But reflecting on what I now know happened, it was like going into a tunnel. It was a roller coaster day: first high, then low.

After Sept. 11 happened, we had a penny drive to help the victims, as a token of how we felt. They brought in pennies and we put them in a jar. A penny to these kids is like $1 million. We live in a low socioeconomic area, and they gave of themselves.

This wasn't a one-day affair. We still talk about it. I know you can't pray in school, but we bow our heads in a moment of silent meditation. We don't want to forget what happened. The kids know and they don't want to forget. They want to talk about it, and we talk as much they want to. They understand life goes on, but we also have to remember what happened.

The tragedy has caused not only me but my whole family to look at things a little differently--to appreciate life, to appreciate what it is to be an American, to be with your family, to be in the land of the free and the home of the brave. I'm more sensitive to others, and it's caused me to grow as a person. And to put things in perspective that are important and those things that are trivial.

I grew up in Palmetto, Fla., and my dad only had a fourth-grade education. He had eight children. He worked really, really hard to make sure we all went to school, and college if we wanted to. When he found out that President Bush was coming to his daughter's classroom, [this] man who had worked in the field, growing gladiolas, of course he was excited. He was very proud of his daughter, that I had been chosen. I said, 'Do you want to come down to see what a classroom looks like when it is converted to receive the president?' And I brought him down, with his oxygen. He passed away Oct. 31. I have had a roller coaster year."


As told to John-Thor Dahlburg

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