Ken Reynolds, former Dean of Students at TF South
Publisher’s note: This letter was written in 2001, just five days after four planes were used as weapons against American civilians on September 11. “At the time, I was just starting my fifth year in education and my first year as a Dean of Students,” says Ken Reynolds. “Writing helped me gather and organize my thoughts and feelings after the tragedy.” The Lansing Journal asked Reynolds if we could publish the letter as a Local Voices piece in observance of the 20th anniversary of that attack, and he agreed.
An open letter to the students of TF South
Like all of you, I am struggling to come to terms with what happened on September 11th. Never in my lifetime has anything like this occurred. I have nothing to compare it to, nothing to help me determine how or what I am supposed to feel after a single event of such horrifying death, destruction, and despair. Then something entered my mind that allowed me to think of a way this applies to this school that I care so much about.
Many of the students in this building, both past and present, have asked numerous times why we have to take all these classes to graduate. The familiar cry of, “What does this have to do with the real world or my life?” has fallen from the mouths of most of you reading this letter right now. After experiencing an event that none of us should ever forget, answers to why we take all these classes were played out on the real life stages of New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Real life and education go hand in hand. Consider the following courses:
- U.S. History
The tragedy will be one of those events that your children and grandchildren will study when they sit where you are now. Imagine them asking, “What does this have to do with me?” Think about how you felt when you watched the horror. What would you say to them? Then remember that the things you will study this year (Civil War, World Wars I and II, Vietnam Conflict, etc.) from our nation’s history affected people in the same way that this tragedy is now affecting you. We learn from past disasters to prevent them from happening again. That is why History is a required class.
How can we make tall buildings safe? What can go into the design of our nation’s structures to prevent disaster? How do you safely remove massive tons of steel without injuring anyone else? What is the strength and force of a speeding jetliner equal to? Just a couple of questions I’d like to ask a Physics teacher. That’s why it’s offered in high school.
The doctors and nurses who were working that day, the ones who treated thousands of victims, all started learning about their careers in a biology class. The study of the human body, how it works, and how it can be healed is centered on an understanding of science. In the future, you will hear about a victim of the disaster whose life was saved. That survivor will owe a large amount of thanks to medical personnel who excelled in biology class. That is why the class is offered in high school.
What does the human mind go through in a time of tragedy? How does one face certain death? I try to imagine what thoughts went through the victims’ minds on that fateful day. I don’t have the answers. Now the focus of so many is how to move on from what we have experienced since that day. An understanding of the human mind and thought processes will help. The class is called Psychology, and that is why it’s offered in high school.
Numbers from the tragedy are all around us. After five days, the number of missing was 5,422. That is more than three-and-a-half times the number of people in this building. Need to know how algebra works? Try figuring out this real life story problem: If you attended two funerals every day, how many years would it take you to attend 5,422? The answer is 7.43 years. That’s how math applies to real life, and that’s why it’s a required course.
Real life requires the need to write and speak about life. We grow as human beings by sharing our thoughts and feelings with those around us. We learn from what we read and hear from others. We study literature to learn about themes and emotions you have witnessed since this event took place. Power, anger, hatred, heroism, violence, and war are all involved in this tragedy. The chances are very good that some day your children will read a piece of literature about this incident while sitting in English class. Only by reading, speaking, and writing about this powerful event can anyone expect to deal with it head on. I know because it’s what I’m doing right now. That’s why English classes are required.
- Child Development
How do you communicate to a small child the things that happened? Or should you? How do you explain something filled with such hatred and horror to someone so small and innocent? You need to have answers. I know because my three-year-old son came up to me two days after the attack and said, “Daddy, are they still talking about that airplane?” I hope the tears I shed and the words I said were the right ones. That’s why Child Development is a course in high school.
The patriotic songs of the past week echo through our minds and hearts. You should make it your duty to know ALL the lyrics to the “Star-Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful,” and “God Bless America.” The power of music has been used as a source of comfort and healing for a long time. This is no different. You will soon hear a song by a recording star or major group that will attempt to capture the feelings we all have experienced since those planes hit. You will memorize the words, and years from now when you hear that song, your mind will race back to the day of the tragedy. Music is one of the true gifts that helps us to never forget. That is why Music is offered in high school.
- Physical Education
In times of trouble, we need people of strength. The reality of the current situation is that people close to your age are the ones governments come looking for when building up military forces. Sometimes they look for volunteers; sometimes they start drafting soldiers. You need to be ready. If the story is true about the fourth plane’s hijackers being overpowered by the passengers, you can bet that strength, quickness, and agility were all involved. Taking care of your body may some day save your life or that of somebody else. That’s why Physical Education is a required course.
The images of September 11 will be forever frozen in our minds. Those horrifying pictures of disaster will never be forgotten. Neither will the heroic shots of rescue workers risking their lives to save others. Close your eyes right now and you can probably see that stirring photo of the firemen raising the American flag on top of the rubble. Freezing powerful moments in time is a primary function of art. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. If that’s true, then think how many words were conveyed to you in the video and camera shots you have witnessed since the attack and the ones you will continue to see in the future. That’s why Art is offered in high school.
- World Problems
Think there might be a few things to talk about in this course? Enough said. That’s why it’s offered in high school.
I know that I have missed some classes and connections, but that’s OK. My main goal was to convince you that your education DOES relate to the world around you. This one horrific event ties together so much of what you study. Our country needs you to enroll in these classes, learn as much as you can, and then go forth to college or into the world to make it a better place.
One last thing: Go home tonight and look up the word HERO in a dictionary. Memorize the definition, and then decide if it applies more closely to movie stars, athletes, and musicians, or if it more accurately describes the brave men and women who protect and serve our country. Amid all the chaos of that tragic day, all the people running away from those twin towers in New York, there were firefighters and rescue personnel going in to the same buildings that everybody else was running away from. Heroes are not created in movies, in games, or at concerts. Instead, they are made in life and death situations.
That’s just one of the things I have learned since September 11. I will never again view my life in the same way I did before this tragedy. Unfortunately, that is one real-life lesson that high school could not offer me.
Ken Reynolds, TF South Dean of Students, 2001
“I am attaching a picture taken the morning of the attack, approximately 30 minutes before the first plane hit the North Tower. As fate would have it, that Tuesday morning was the first day of pre-school for my son Louis. My daughter Cori had just started kindergarten the week before. As many parents now do, my wife and I catalogued our children’s first day of school each year. After the attack happened, we completely forgot about this picture. Months later my wife and I discovered it and were genuinely moved by its unintended symbolism. We still are to this day. We all know the expression, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’ Sadly, this picture symbolizes not only thousands of words, but also thousands of lives lost on that fateful day.” –Ken Reynolds
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