Saturday, September 11, 2021

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, NYC teacher Roe Wrubel and her poem, "I Got my Wish the Wrong Way"

Ronit (Roe) Wrubel was my daughter's 1st and 2nd grade teacher at PS 3 in Greenwich Village more than twenty years ago.  Roe was the first person to talk to me about the importance of class size when she had 29 students in her class, and she talked to me about how much easier it was when one or two children were absent because it made all the difference in the world in being able to teach the rest of them effectively.  Roe was the best teacher at PS 3, and later moved to teach at PS 89 in Tribeca.

Today is the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and there's a must read article in Good Housekeeping about how on that fateful day, Roe protected her 3rd grade students at PS 89 when the World Trade Center towers were hit and collapsed.  It describes how she lowered the blinds in the classroom after the first tower was hit, took her students to the gym and distracted them while waiting for their parents to pick them up.  She and another parent then walked the remaining students uptown to PS 3.  So many teachers were heroes that day and during the following weeks, and continued to do their jobs in the face of immense trauma, just as they have continued to do their jobs during the ongoing pandemic.

After 9/11, the PS 89 building became the Command Center for  rescue efforts, and its teachers and students moved to PS 3 for a few months.  The following  year, so many families had moved away from the neighborhood that Roe only had 11 children in her class. The piece below, "Getting My Wish the Wrong Way", was written in Jan. 2002.  

Last year, some teachers commented that the only good thing about their classes was how small they were, with 60% of students staying home engaged in remote learning and six feet of social distancing enforced in classrooms.  

This year, if there are smaller classes , it will not be because of any efforts the administration has made to lower class size, but because many parents may have moved out of the city or are too afraid to send their kids back into overcrowded schools.  

It is heartbreaking that the only time most NYC students are able to experience the profound benefits of smaller classes and teachers who have time to spend with each of them individually is when tragedies like 9/11 or the Covid pandemic hit our city.

Getting My Wish The Wrong Way

by Ronit Wrubel 

In the center of my backpack sits a rather worn button, emblazoned with the words: CLASS SIZE MATTERS. A long ago gift from a group of dedicated parents working diligently to fight the good fight.

Every teacher knows, unequivocally, that the number of students in a classroom directly affects the breadth and depth of support and guidance that can be provided to those students. No matter what their academic or social/emotional needs, class size does matter.

I realized this early on, back in my student teaching days. I lived this, year in and year out, teaching classes full of at least 28 amazing children, with myriad strengths, and myriad needs. I could only spread myself so thin, I could only give so much. Though I tried. Every second hoping I could do more for them, be more for them, share more with them, learn more from them. 

Class size became my mantra. The soap box I stood on and preached from, for anyone who would listen. The scope of things I wanted to do for my students; to help them develop their independence, express their individuality, become full members of our class community, and achieve the heights of their potential; was tamped down because of sheer numbers. Too many subjects, not enough time. Too many necessities, not enough time. Too many possibilities, not enough time. Too many students, not enough time. 

If only there were less of them, I knew I could make more of a difference. I knew it with my mind. I knew it with my heart. I knew it with my soul.

And then it happened. I got my wish.

11 children remaining in my class. 

11 wonderful children. 11 energetic children. 11 bright children. 11 dedicated children. 

11 traumatized children.

“Please meet me on the rug, RIGHT NOW. Leave your books where they are. Come close. COME CLOSER.”

“There was an accident at the World Trade Center. I don’t know exactly what happened. There’s a fire. You’re going to hear a lot of sirens. The fire department and police department and ambulance workers are on their way to help out. It’s going to be noisy. We’re almost three blocks away. We’re safe.” 

I got my wish the wrong way.

The World Trade Center blew up. The towers collapsed in front of our eyes. They FELL. We ran for our lives. We got away.

My students going through it all, way too young, on September 11th. Clinging, Crying, Screaming, Frozen. Each child eventually got picked up by a family member. Safely out of our building; or later safely out of our evacuation site. But they couldn’t go home. Not for days, not for weeks, not for months. Battery Park City was GROUND ZERO; the FROZEN ZONE. Our school was the COMMAND CENTER. Our lives were CHANGED FOREVER.

Every family made their own decisions. “Where will we be safe? Where will we live? Where should my child go to school?” As time went by, my class grew smaller, and my heart grew wearier. 

With excitement and anticipation in late August I set up my room, and we started a class. With apprehension and bewilderment in mid-September at another school building, I set up a sparse room, we started over. With exhaustion and intensity in late October at an uncrowded school building, I set up a new classroom, we started over yet again. Then an additional move loomed on the horizon, back home- with questions of safety- with questions of change- with questions of the past and the future. So, with determination and expectation in February, I packed up, I set up my original classroom again, and we started over one more time. 

Through it all the children left.

Slowly dispersing. 

Around the city.

Around the state.

Around the country.

Around the world.

Now, there are 11 children in my class. I can spend more time with them. I can meet with small groups. I can listen to more ideas. I can have more conferences. I can review their work more carefully. I got my wish.

I can watch for signs of trauma. I can listen to more tales of that day, and the days that have followed. I can see their fear. Can they see mine?

Now, there are 11 children in my class. I got my wish.

I got my wish the wrong way.

Ronit M. Wrubel, Teacher - P.S. 89 

New York City, January 2002


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