Sept. 11 has become one of those dates by which Americans measure time — before, and after. Although my family did not lose anyone in the attacks, our lives have changed profoundly.
My 13-year-old son, Kevin, and I witnessed the attacks from different vantage points in lower Manhattan. From a classroom in Intermediate School 89, a public middle school three blocks north of the World Trade Center, he watched United Airlines Flight 175 slam into the South Tower.
As Kevin fled his school, he saw people leap from the North Tower's upper floors. He had traveled only one block when the South Tower collapsed. For hours that day, he did not know whether I had survived; my office was across the street from the World Trade Center. When we finally were reunited and made our way home that evening, it was to a neighborhood reeling from loss.
The approximately 3,000 students who attended public schools in the neighborhoods surrounding the World Trade Center were immediately dubbed the "Ground Zero kids" by the press. Not only had they witnessed the attacks and massive loss of life up close, but they were displaced from their school buildings for months. The media speculated about the psychological damage they had sustained, whether they would ever recover, and whether it would be too traumatic to return them to their downtown school buildings.
As I struggled to recover from my own initial shock, I became increasingly worried about Kevin. I researched post-traumatic stress and learned that children who have witnessed acts of extreme violence regress to earlier ages. They cling to their parents, are overwhelmed by fears of another attack or of losing a parent, and become withdrawn from family and friends. They experience sleep disturbances, such as nightmares, and exhibit behavioral problems in school or at home. Kevin and his classmates had many of these symptoms.
Parents weren't faring much better. When I compared notes with friends, our symptoms were similar. We couldn't sleep. We had violent nightmares. We were unable to concentrate. We cried easily, often several times a day. We were haunted by the memories of what we had seen. Experts on trauma caution parents to shield children from their own fears. This has been difficult advice to follow in a city that has experienced two terrorist attacks in nine years, and is now consciously bracing itself for more in the future.
Still, as I read about strategies for helping children recover, I saw that my partner, Laura, and I had instinctively done many things right. We had turned off our television, so that we would not see replays of the attacks. We made it a point not to discuss our own fears or frightening events in front of Kevin, and we kept disturbing news photos out of sight. Throughout weeks of bomb scares, anthrax attacks and repeated "terrorism alerts," we adhered to a normal routine, albeit in new locations.