Strong Bonds Remain Between Teachers and Students After 9-11

“I don’t use it anymore. It just sits here most of the time,” said Cobb. But every Sept. 11, it’s a reminder to her of how she spent that day trying to make sense of what was happening while also trying to help her students cope and understand. For her, that television is a reminder of how she and her students were forever connected on a day the world changed.

Similarly, Middle School teacher Rojean Sprague remembers how she talked with her young students about what she knew would be a watershed moment in their lives. Now, every 9-11 she looks forward to a special text from a former student.

Those connections, whether to a person, a television, or a place, keep the memory of 9-11 alive and vivid. Those memories also help TK teachers relate the experiences that day to students who were not yet born. 

“To them it’s just another part of history - like World War II or anything else. Students today didn’t live it, but we need to help them understand what it was like,” said Sprague.

Cobb’s connection is much more than just with an old television. This year, 22 years after 9-11, she heard a familiar voice on opening day when new staff were introduced. It was Jesse VanBemden, a 2003 graduate, who is back at TK now working as a social worker intern in the high school and middle school.

“The first thing he said to me was ‘Mrs. Cobb, do you remember me in your classroom and watching TV on 9-11?’”

Cobb said she was floored. “Of course, I remembered him. I’ve told my class the story about Jesse every year on 9-11. I remember him just very excitedly asking me to turn on the TV because something was happening, we had to watch. He was just very adamant about it that we had to see what was happening.”

VanBemden also remembers the day vividly. “I was sitting right here, or maybe the next row back, in this classroom,” he said standing in the same classroom. “I remember she (Ms. Cobb) turned on the television so we could see what was going on. I’ll never forget it. We didn’t really know or understand what was happening,” he said. 

Cobb said the old television is a way of helping students today get a feel for what it was like 22 years ago. “I bring this old clunky television out every year on 9-11 to share the story with my students,” said Cobb. “It was all so shocking then and having this television just helps me show my students this time of history. They weren’t even alive yet when 9-11 happened, so to them it’s just another piece of history.”

But the television was almost lost forever this summer. As construction was being done in the high school, the television cart got moved from her room and misplaced. She had no idea where it was and decided it was only a television and she wouldn't worry about it. But it kept tugging at her heart.

Then, on opening day when she met VanBemden again, she knew she had to find that old television and cart.

Fortunately, it hadn’t been discarded, only moved into a storage area. She could hardly contain her emotions when she rolled it back into her classroom. “It just needs to be here. I can’t let it go. I’ll keep it here in my classroom and every year I’ll tell my students the story about watching 9-11 on this TV and years later of a student asking if I remember watching it in the classroom.”

VanBemden said 9-11 changed his life in ways he never could have imagined when he was a student watching that television in Mrs. Cobb’s class.

After graduating in 2003, he was working in excavation and other blue-collar jobs. “On the five-year anniversary of 9-11, my best friend was in Iraq, and I was sitting in the cab of an excavator and I remember I only had a nickel in my pocket. I was listening to the radio and the memories of 9-11 and I decided if I flipped the coin, and it was heads I was going to join the military. So, I did. It was heads and I ended up serving 10 years in the Marine Corps. I did four tours of duty in the infantry and went to Afghanistan twice. If it weren’t for 9-11, I probably never would have joined, never would have gone to California where I met my wife, and now we have three kids,” he said. “9-11 changed my entire life.”

He also said his connection to Mrs. Cobb and that classroom is something he will always remember. “I can’t tell you who half my teachers were back then, but I can remember almost exactly where I was sitting in this classroom and I can remember everything about watching the television in this room. Seeing Mrs. Cobb or hearing her name always brings me back to this room and watching 9-11 and I just remember how we talked about it and what was happening.”

Sprague said 9-11-01 was a hard, dark day. “I remember telling my kids that what was happening that day was a watershed moment in their lives, just like Pearl Harbor was a watershed moment in the lives of their grandparents. I hadn’t heard from this student for several years. He graduated and moved out of state and then one 9-11 I got a text from him. And now, every year he texts me on 9-11 just to check in.”

She picked up her phone and read this year’s message, “Thinking about you today. Hope all is well.”

She smiled. “It just makes me feel good.”