How Sept. 11 Shaped the Class of 2005

Special correspondent Susan Stamberg talks to students of her high school alma mater — New York City's La Guardia High in Manhattan — about their momentous first day of high school, Sept. 11, 2001. These teenagers graduate in June, ending a high school career overshadowed by one of the darkest days in their country's history.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This graduating season, MORNING EDITION is speaking with members of the class of 2005 in New York City, young men and women whose college and high school careers began with the World Trade Center attacks. Yesterday, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg spoke with new women graduates of Barnard College. Today, we meet three graduating seniors from LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.

SUSAN STAMBERG reporting:

In my day, it was called the High School of Music & Art. We climbed up some 135 steps to get to our Gothic-style castle on the hill. Music & Art and the High School of Performing Arts were the Fame schools featured in that lively musical movie. In 1984, the schools merged and now LaGuardia High School is home to young musicians, painters, dancers, actors who pass tough admissions tests to get top artistic and academic training at this free public school.

On September 11th, 2001, music major Jennifer Thum traveled from Brooklyn to LaGuardia with high hopes.

JENNIFER THUM (Music Major): It's supposed to be our first full day of high school.

STAMBERG: Can you remember your first day of high school, the giddy excitement of it, the trepidation, the sense that everything important was about to begin? Jennifer Thum was going to her first class of that first day.

THUM: And a girl came running up the stairs and said that--she had, like, someone on the cell phone with her and she was, like, `We've been attacked!' And I kind of shrugged it off and I was, like, `Don't worry about it.'

STAMBERG: Then came a formal announcement from LaGuardia's principal of what had happened a few miles south of school. Jennifer Thum's first thought was of her father who worked across the street from the World Trade Center. Agonizing hours passed. Phones weren't working. Subways weren't running. Eventually, Jennifer reached Brooklyn and all her family. Her dad had been running late that morning and missed his usual bus.

THUM: Had he caught the one he normally takes, he would have been at the Trade Center at approximately 9:00, like, right when the first plane hit.

STAMBERG: On that first terrible morning of his freshman year, Marshall Paillet snuck out of high school and began walking home, uptown to 91st Street.

MARSHALL PAILLET (High School Student): And there were people huddled around little radios on the street, just large chunks of people just in the circles around these radios, just listening. No one was talking. No one was saying anything. People were just holding on to each other. Strangers were holding on to each other and listening to these radios, just listening and crying.

STAMBERG: Freshman Kim Anderson's parents rushed to LaGuardia to pick up their 13-year-old daughter. Kim and her mother began walking 20 blocks downtown along the Hudson River towards home.

KIM ANDERSON (High School Student): It was an exquisitely beautiful day. It was, like, so bright and blue, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky, except this one cloud and that was the Trade Center. And I saw just this huge sort of column of smoke and I remember just crying because it--I don't know. It was so affecting to see that column of smoke coming up. And it just sort of made me--I sort of understood that this was real.

STAMBERG: School closed for about a week. Once they went back to LaGuardia, Kim Anderson says everybody was pretty jittery.

ANDERSON: I know among my friends, there was sort of a terror of another attack coming. We all thought, you know, we were going to get hit a week later, and we're going to get hit anoth--there were all sorts of rumors.

STAMBERG: Kim and Marshall's music and composition and math classes all resumed.

ANDERSON: It was sort of like business as usual, kind of, but, I mean, the--for lack of better word--the vibe...

PAILLET: Yeah.

STAMBERG: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

ANDERSON: ...was completely changed.

PAILLET: And with some people, there was almost a sense of, like--to the extremes, so business was so back to usual that you were, like, this--business is too back to usual. I mean...

STAMBERG: So miraculously, time passed. Eventually things got back to normal, but do you ever forget it?

ANDERSON: Never. Never.

PAILLET: No.

THUM: No.

STAMBERG: Jennifer Thum.

THUM: I feel like if I'm in the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and the bus stops moving for, like, a minute, I automatically think--I'm, like, `Oh, no.' I get really nervous.

STAMBERG: Kim, would you agree? I mean, do you have the feeling every time a plane goes over that you sort of do...

ANDERSON: Yes.

STAMBERG: ...a little--yeah?

ANDERSON: Yes. I don't know if the rest of you guys...

PAILLET: Yeah.

ANDERSON: ...have had this experience, but every single time a plane flies. And, you know, I live on the 20th floor. So a plane will be going a little low, I always sort of--I tense up. Or if I hear a loud noise, you know, I'll sort of jump up and I'll wait for a second.

STAMBERG: You are the first full four-year graduating class after 9/11. And I wonder, you know, it's a tough question to put to you, but apart from sort of the normal growing pains that everybody experiences, how do you think you are different because of what happened? Let's start with you, Jennifer.

THUM: Now I think I'm so aware of how quickly things can be taken away. But I'm a stronger person. I have learned to let little things sort of slide in life when things get disappointing, and I've really learned not to jump to conclusions and not to accuse people.

STAMBERG: Boy, that's a lot to have learned at your--What are you?--18? Are you 18?

THUM: Almost 18.

STAMBERG: Almost, yeah. And, Kim?

ANDERSON: There was, like, a deep-rooted fear in me and, like, a sense of mortality that hadn't been there before. And then I'm not sure should be there when you're--I mean, you know, I was 13 because my birthday was on September 20th. And, you know, I was just coming out of middle school and I had a crush on this boy, you know. And there was a real sense of, like, the reality of death.

STAMBERG: Marshall, how do you answer that question?

PAILLET: I'm not sure if 9/11 made me a different person, but it definitely made me an older person. I feel like on September 10th, I was 14, and on September 12th, I was 30. And I just felt very old, very mature prematurely. And I feel like I sort of missed out on being a freshman.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: A thousand years ago, when I graduated from what's now called La Guardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, our school song, set to Brahms' "First Symphony," sang of looking upward in wonder at the light of the immortals. Our voices rang out then with innocence, idealism, a kind of purity. I asked these graduating seniors, Kim Anderson, Marshall Paillet and Jennifer Thum, classmates who have seen so much in these past four years, to sing their school song.

ANDERSON: We don't know it.

PAILLET: We can make one up.

ANDERSON: We'll make one up.

THUM: We can all--let's all go la-la, la-la, LaGuardia.

PAILLET: OK, ready? Six, seven, eight...

ANDERSON, PAILLET and THUM: (Singing in unison) La-la, la-la, LaGuardia.

PAILLET: That's our theme song.

ANDERSON and THUM: (In unison) Yeah.

STAMBERG: The LaGuardia High School class of 2005 graduates June 28th. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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