Archive for September, 2011

How Visiting My Old High School Broke My Heart

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

It’s been 40 years since I finished my four years at Brooklyn Tech but it remains one of the pivotal experiences of my life. Oh there were both good and bad things that happened but I really only remember the good things. I still remember the pride of getting and wearing my heavy winter coat with the huge letters TECH on the back. Man I was proud of that. I was a Technite! I was part of something amazing. Tech was a second home to me. From eating in the cafeteria and tossing paper airplanes out the window – only now do I really understand why that drove teachers crazy to being a part of the track team. People are amazed when I tell them we practiced the pole vault on the roof. I still have dreams that take place at Tech. Even after all this time. I run into other Tech alumni from time to time. rare since I live in New England these days but it happens. Each one is family no matter when they graduated. Male, female (boy did that take a while to adjust to), black, white, yellow, what ever. They are Technites and there is a bond there.

A couple of years ago I had business in Brooklyn. I rolled into town early and decided to chance a visit to Tech. As I walked up to the building I went to enter the same door I had walked through for four years as a student. It was habit – it felt natural. Where else would I go in? To no ones surprise I was stopped and sent to a door on the far corner of the building so I could sign in. OK sad but that is the reality. I visit many schools all over the country and visitors always have to sign in. Though it was hard to think of being a visitor. Once there I had to show my ID and sign in. Also not atypical. As I said I visit a lot of schools. Having to show an ID is common though not always the case. I have visited schools where no one even checks the name I sign on the visitor register. And others where a visitor badge with my picture on it is printed out. Oh and I was told I needed an escort.

That was the worst. I had hoped to spend some time just wandering and perhaps talking to faculty. I have done that at other schools where I was not an alumni. Many schools do not require visitors be escorted. At other schools a volunteer student will show me around or to the even where I am speaking. But pretty often I am pointed in a direction and wander off. Not at Tech. Eventually a person from the alumni office showed up and showed me around a little. I was told I couldn’t go visit one classroom we passed that looked interesting. I was shown a few things – the auditorium for example. But we stayed in the halls and visited the alumni office. I felt rushed. I felt unwelcome – an intrusion. I felt like I shouldn’t feel like I belonged. There was no place for me here. I was not at home. I was a stranger. 

It’s been a couple of years and I still think fondly of “my school” but I’m not sure that Tech of today is my school. Now some would say I don’t understand schools. But I do. I have taught in K-6 an K-8 schools. I taught for 8 years in a high school. I have been on a school board. I am on advisory boards for four different high schools. I visit schools all the time. I do understand. I just don’t think it is right and necessary or even good to treat all visitors as the enemy – as a threat – as guilty without proof. Alumni especially should be made to feel at home – like they are welcome.

I will not soon be back to visit Tech. I am not wanted there. My heart is broken.

Ten Years Later

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

I didn’t want to think about 9/11/01 today. I really didn’t. But that seems to be impossible. If for no other reason that my Dad lives with me these days.

I was sitting in my office at Bishop Guertin High School when I heard about the first plane crash. That didn’t sound good but I knew that planes had hit New York City skyscrapers in the past. Still I turned to the Internet for news. Soon after a second plane hit. A student came through my office and remarked about it being some coincidence. I replied that it was not a coincidence. One could be an accident but two meant deliberate action. I didn’t want to be right but I was.

Soon after I saw two girls, the Oganowski sisters, accompanied by a guidance councilor and a campus minister walk quickly by with tears in their eyes. I found out shortly after that their father had been the pilot of the first plane to crash.

Soon I started thinking about people I knew in the City. One of them I knew worked in one of the buildings at the trade center though I didn’t know which one. Also I wondered about my father. Dad lived on the eastern end of Long Island but he was still the senior chaplain of the New York City fire department. Had he gone to the City that day?

I was able to find out about my friend. He was late going to work and wasn’t at work when the crashes happened. He was safe. I couldn’t get in touch with my Dad right away.

It turns out that my Dad had been home when the first crash happened. He’d gotten into his truck (a  Chevy Blazer) and using red light and siren made amazing time getting to the WTC site. He knew a lot of firefighters involved including some senior officers and of course Fr. Mychal Judge one of the department’s other chaplains who died in the building collapse.

Dad was on the scene for pretty much 6 weeks straight. The first night or two he slept in his Blazer a block away from what came to be called “Ground Zero” by all. FEMA put him up in a hotel nearby at some point. After a couple of days masks became available and required. Still, my Dad’s lungs have not been the same since. In fact I wonder how many of his current medical issues  derived or were worsened by those weeks.

After about 6 weeks Dad was hospitalized with pneumonia. Oh did I mention that he was already 76 and had been spending 12 to 18 hours a day at Ground Zero for weeks with no breaks?

Dad spent his time in several ways. One was helping prepare the many clergy who volunteered to help. He warned clergy not to “shove the dove” as he put it. In other words not to use this as a chance to do a hard press on evangelism. First responders needed support and comfort.  Not judgment or hard press preaching. Living the faith was the important thing.

Dad also spent a lot of time with families of the victims. This is a role that Dad was uniquely prepared for. When one loses a spouse it is often easy to feel, and often correctly, that counselors don’t know what they are going through. Dad had outlived two wives by this time and really deeply did (does) know what it is like to lose a spouse. He’d also seen a lot in his years as a chaplain both for  the Fire Department and the Navy. These were not his first visits with families who had lost a loved one. And he’d seen some pretty horrible things during World War II where he saw more combat than most.

A lot has happened since then. Dad finally retired from the Fire Department – the last of several jobs he retired from. I’ve since left teaching and gone back to industry. Security theatre runs rampant throughout the country. We’ve still got fighting forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to no apparent good for the US.

No one won that day. Everyone lost. What is important now is where we go from here.