The Chestnut Hill School

Head of School Blog

Species Survival

Posted by Steven Tobolsky on 11 Sep 2011

Living and working at an elementary school in New York City on September 11, 2001, I spent the next few months experiencing the same range of emotions as most adults in my immediate surroundings: confusion, tears, lack of focus, and sleeplessness. Six months later, as the smoke began to clear, we began to trust that the debris could actually be cleared away, that the ground zero site might actually be rebuilt, that the children in our charge would grow up and receive a meaningful education, and that life would eventually resume something of a familiar pattern. It did not occur to us quite yet that something dramatically different had already taken place in the relationships between children and adults.

We tried our best to talk to them calmly and rationally about what had happened.  We tried to shield them at least a little bit from our own fears.  What we hadn’t initially realized, of course, was that we were powerless at that time to do anything to help them because we were in such need of help ourselves.  Then, guided by an almost mystical higher power--species survival, the strongest of all biological imperatives, the children in our lives came to realize that their job was to take care of us, not the other way around.  They watched us even more closely than usual, and they figured out how to help us to get on with everyday life.  They had needs, to be sure, but their  kindness and understanding became our magical elixir.

Ten years later, I’m not sure how the pieces have begun to rearrange themselves.  As much as we strive to protect children against unspeakable dangers, I suspect that we will forever be subject to their reciprocal care-taking.  I would even go so far as to insist that adults need children as much as children need adults.  As any teacher, parent, or caregiver will attest, it is a unique privilege to see the world constantly afresh through the eyes of young people.  Curiosity, enthusiasm, loyalty, unbridled joy: these are part of their legacy to us.  As we embrace a generation of children whose heritage of 9/11 is only historical, let us open our hearts to them once again in the hopes that only through their eyes can we learn to save ourselves.