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FIRST-PERSON: Teacher yearns for, finds hope on the day of prayer

ATLANTA (BP)–For three days I masked my sorrow, my fear.

In shock after hearing news of the Sept. 11 tragedy, I forgot to take roll during first period. I marched each of my classes to a large science lab where we joined with two and sometimes three other groups of students to watch the day’s events unfold.

The next day, I cried all the way to school, listening to a haunting recap of the terror on the radio. I had foolishly hoped I wouldn’t have to go through the motions and handle the emotions of 120 teens throughout the day, but I understood our nation’s need to show its strength.

By Thursday, I was both sick at heart and weary from exhaustion and allergies. Though we had begun to get back on track on literature projects Wednesday and Thursday, the informal environment usually gave way to more discussion, more venting about our country’s situation. Since our projects included early American responses to slavery and witchcraft, we were able to use the topics to springboard into discourse about current events.

The last period of the day, however, finally did me in.

“I wish we would stop talking it about all of this,” said one normally very thoughtful and easygoing senior boy. “I’m really tired of hearing about it all the time.”

Unfortunately, I snapped, reminding him that “it” was friends and loved ones of teachers and students even in our very midst. “It” was not over and “it” would be with us for quite a while. “It” meant we might even go to war.

“Well, I have a right to my opinion,” he spat out.

“Yes, you do,” I told him, a little more kindly this time. “After all, that’s what America’s all about.”

Turning to the rest of the class, I told them, “Go ahead and break into your groups. We will not discuss the issue any further in here today.”

Both surprised and a little shocked at my abrupt and surly response, I sat down heavily in the chair behind my desk, barely glancing up. The students quickly moved on, planning creative and entertaining projects they would perform for the class. While they could move on, I could not.

The mask was gone.

In its place was a weariness so indescribable I began to pray for a way to take the day off on Friday and collect my thoughts. About that same time, I saw on my computer screen a CNN report announcing President Bush’s declaration of a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance.

Taking the day off turned out to be easy; I asked and was generously granted time. My plan was to go to school during the first period to help my newspaper kids stay on deadline, and then go by the house to pick up my husband and then head to a prayer service.

John, meanwhile, had searched in vain for a service in our area south of Atlanta and could find no churches or government entities announcing services.

To confirm his findings, or lack thereof, we drove through town and past dozens of churches, just after 11 a.m. But no signs or banners announced services. We did not see people gathering. My heart began to pound and I felt like we were racing against the clock.

When 12 o’clock came, however, we knew it. On Interstate 75 heading into Atlanta, vehicles suddenly braked and swerved. We almost crashed into a large 18-wheeler in front of us when it slammed on its brakes to avoid slower vehicles ahead.

Dozens, maybe hundreds of cars with their lights on were stopped on the sides of the highway. One fire-engine-red convertible with flags hung from both sides of the front sat with rapidly blinking head and taillights. Traffic that continued to move crept by respectfully. Bells tolled over the radio in our car, tuned in to a broadcast of the service at the Nation’s capital.

Continuing into downtown Atlanta, we saw hordes of people dressed in red, white and blue — many waving or holding small American flags. One service was filled to overflowing in a large cathedral on a main street.

Making our way to Atlanta’s Olympic Centennial Park, I began to think of the bombing tragedy there, not so long ago — and the time I covered events in 1999 in memory of the Columbine victims. At the time, crosses for each of the 13 slaughtered at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., stood first on the memorial bricks commemorating the park’s bombing, and then in front of a stage where nearly 10,000 young people bowed their heads or lay prostrate on the ground in prayer.

There were not thousands or even hundreds in the park when we arrived, however. Just a few groups watching water gush from the overlapping circles making up a fountain symbolizing the Olympics.

It was there in the shadow of the CNN building flashing a neon “God Bless America” message in red, white and blue that I finally relaxed enough to let the calming presence of God overwhelm me and bring a sort of prospective to the tragedy.

I thought about the abruptness with which people were taken, and how it leaves me with such horror. Nameless, faceless victims and visions of a fireball billowing from massive structures, causing them to crumble into smoldering rubble — these somehow faded when I sat on a bench and watched schoolchildren eating lunch and dancing around, with dozens of glittering massive buildings to which I am accustomed in the skyline.

Sitting with my husband’s arm warm on my shoulder, I sensed a comfort, an easiness I had not felt all week. We didn’t need words to express our thoughts as our fingers entwined. Our heads did not bow in prayer, but we mouthed earnest and silent prayers toward the sunshine and the wind and on to God.

Strolling from the park at an unhurried pace, we finally encountered a group of businessmen and women at an amphitheater, almost hidden from the sight of the frolicking children and curious passersby.

Sitting upright on the steps, with shoulders almost touching and hands clasped firmly across the gaps, they appeared firm in their quest to turn to God.

We moved quietly on, my heart strengthened by the day, my eyes by the sights and sounds that told me we could move on, albeit carefully. Not thinking this is the end, but prayerfully, earnestly hoping this is the beginning of a new age when America does not forget to pray.
Hannigan is a national correspondent for Baptist Press. She is a high school English and journalism teacher in the Atlanta area.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan