It was one of those early fall days that takes your breath away. The sun was a brilliant, lemony yellow. The sky was ironically cloudless. Will we ever forget the perfection of a morning that would foreshadow such an unremittingly dark day for our country?
Springside’s school year was just underway, and I was driving on Germantown Avenue to visit a Springside alumna. Enroute, I received a phone call from my daughter who was living in Tribeca, only a few blocks from the World Trade Center. Her voice was soft, yet filled with obvious fear as she told me of walking to buy coffee and being aware of an ominous shadow overhead and a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. I then lost connection and tried, to no avail, to reconnect.
When I met our alumna, I told her of my daughter’s call and, turning on the television, we saw the beginning but inchoate reporting of news that was just being transmitted in sound bites and pieces. Without delay, I started the drive back to school that seemed to last forever. It is amazing how the adrenalized feeling of protection rushes through every fiber of your being. I needed to call my daughter and get back to all of my girls at school.
Of course, the phone lines were still blocked, so I had to believe my daughter was OK as I focused on the students. I had three Upper School trips off campus: one class was in Philadelphia, one was in D.C., and the seniors were camping in the Poconos. This was the era before children had cell phones, and conversations between the trip leaders and me were sketchy at best.
We had one little black-and-white television in the Development Office, and we adults kept trying to grasp the horror that was unfolding, each report more grim than the last.
The administrative team and I met in an emergency session. We decided that we would obviously allow all students to go home with their parents, but we would keep the day running as smoothly and normally as possible. The faculty, particularly those for the younger girls, was magnificent as they kept their classes totally focused and their own fears and concerns in check.
The children were blissfully unaware while parents arrived ashen-faced to pick up their daughters and their daughters’ friends. Parents did what parents do and protected other children, so there was a collective of caring within the school. Those of us with children in New York City would have hours before we knew they were safe.
I met with Middle School students and gave them a basic idea of what was happening, choosing my words carefully, each rolling out over the black lump wedged in my heart and my soul. We had first checked to ensure that no one’s mother or father worked on Wall Street. I could not guarantee that this would be the case for other relatives.
If students were concerned, they were permitted to call home. The Philadelphia trip came back fairly quickly and we were able to get through to the trip leader on the D.C. trip and ask them to come home. It took them hours.
As each group came back to school, I spoke to students and adults and gave an outline of the horror that had happened. By that time, many had a few sketchy details, while some knew nothing. I decided to keep the seniors in the Poconos, as they were relatively safe and traveling was difficult. The parents were in agreement.
While I had many conversations with worried parents, my ever-abiding memory will be of those asking what they could do and how they could help. I remember the Rev. Marek Zabriskie coming to offer help and comfort as I spoke to the returning groups of students.
I returned home late that night to watch the repeated reel of horror and carnage on television. My husband had spoken to our daughter who was safe but traumatized by the plane and the sight of hundreds of people jumping to their deaths.
Richard Parker, Chestnut Hill Academy’s headmaster at the time, and I spoke later that night and decided to break with the Philadelphia public and parochial schools and open the next day in a bid to offer our students the constancy of school and familiar routine.
It would not be for several days that we would learn of the death of our beloved Johanna Sigmund, Springside ’94. We would learn that while she had not been feeling well in the morning, she did not want to stay home and was sprinting to the office in order not to be late. Sadly, she would never make it.
Her loss has been incalculable for her family and school, but it has generated a sense of community that has demonstrated the best of who we are. Her classmates from both Springside and CHA came together soon after her death to create a fund, an ongoing memorial to this wonderful young woman. It now supports several girls who would not be able to attend the school without the Sigmund Fund’s financial support. Each year I am able to celebrate in them a little of the joy that was Johanna.
While we have all been immeasurably saddened by the experience of such staggering loss, I hope that we never lose a sense of compassion for others and an appreciation of the gifts of our diverse world. Extremism does not recognize culture, race or religious beliefs but is rather fueled by hate. Our love and nurturing of Johanna’s memory keeps us grounded in the values that we honor.
Priscilla G. Sands, currently president of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, was Springside’s head of school on September 11, 2001.