77: ‘I saw this on the movies’ – twenty years on

I’ve seen a lot of posts this morning on social media headed ‘twenty years ago…’. Twenty years ago I was a nursery teacher in Hackney, and on the afternoon of the 11th of September (or 9/11 as the Americans would have it) we opened the nursery door to let the parents in.

‘Have you seen?’

‘Did you hear?’

These were the days before smart phones, before computers in everyone’s pockets, so no – we hadn’t heard, but we went to the staffroom after sending the kids home and someone had set up the portable TV. Along with the rest of the world we sat in silence and we watched and we cried. Our year 4 teacher joined us: her brother worked in the second tower. The shock and fear in her face was terrible to see. The skies were silent over City and Stansted.

As the evening unfolded we drifted home and carried on watching: there was nothing else to do but to watch the news roll out.

The next day I went into school, because life goes on. Our year 4 teacher had had no news and was with her family. When she returned the following week she was like a ghost: her brother was still among the missing when I left the school the following spring.

Far from the usual chaos and noise generated by 30 four year olds, my nursery children were subdued and thoughtful: at four they were really too young to process what was happening, but knew something important was going on in the world.

J (a small East End boy who would usually spend the morning hoovering in the home corner dressed in a wedding dress, daring anyone to comment) sat on the carpet with M, another small boy with a tendency towards boisterous play. Over and over they built two towers from blocks, and ‘flew’ their hands into them. No sound effects today, just silent building and destruction all morning. I sat on the floor with them for a while, talking to them about what they were doing and how it made them feel.

Another child, B, watched the tiny TV we had set up on top of the cupboard and said ‘I saw this on the movies last night. It made my mummy cry and I was scared.’

Many of the children needed more reassurance that day, and most of them played out – as children do – their thought processes and feelings. It was a quiet, serious morning in what was usually a space filled with noise and colour.

I talk about this day a lot when I am teaching sociology, childcare or teacher training students about the importance of play in helping not just small children but older ones to process feelings and experiences. It was a moment when theory became reality and I watched children make sense of the world through the play environment around them: small people trying to understand something that was consuming their adults and that had impacted on their lives.

I don’t know whether those four year olds remember where they were on 9/11 but that day, and the one that followed, will stay with me for ever.

(Cover image credit: Photo by Carsten Schlipf from FreeImages)

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