‘We Didn’t Need Money. We Needed Paper Cranes.’

After 9/11, the kids from a school near Ground Zero were briefly, weirdly, famous for their proximity to tragedy. What has this anniversary season meant to them?

Getty; Reading Rainbow / PBS; The Atlantic

About the author: Amy Weiss-Meyer is a deputy managing editor at The Atlantic.

Darby Northington and his mom and younger brother had almost made it to school. They’d gotten a late start that morning; it was the beginning of the year at P.S. 234, an elementary school just north of the World Trade Center, where Darby was in third grade, and everyone was still getting into a new routine. They were about to cross Chambers Street when a plane flew directly overhead.

When Darby told me this story, on Zoom in late August, he looked toward the ceiling and held both his arms up in parallel, as though he were catching a basketball, to indicate the plane’s path. He remembered thinking, Whoa, this is the closest I’ve ever seen one of these. The plane was low and loud. When it hit the North Tower, everyone stood and stared. Darby said something to his mom about the accident they’d just witnessed. “She was like, ‘It’s not an accident,’” he recalled.

Darby is an investment banker now, with a reddish beard and a kind smile; he apologetically interrupted himself at one point to tell someone off camera that he’d already fed the cats their breakfast. I don’t think we’d met before, but it’s possible that our paths had crossed at some point. Though I wasn’t a student at P.S. 234, I was also a third grader in downtown Manhattan on 9/11, and some of Darby’s former classmates are acquaintances and friends with whom I’m still in touch. Recently, I talked with nine of them, and with their teacher, Kara Pranikoff, about that strange third-grade year and the two decades that have passed since.

The classmates already knew one another well in 2001; Pranikoff had been their second-grade teacher too, her first year at the school. “They come into third grade way more independent than second graders,” Pranikoff told me. “They’re really able to put things together. They can read fluently enough and they can write fluently enough and they can speak fluently enough.” Things start to gel at that age. You know your way around the neighborhood. In New York City, maybe you can walk to the corner alone, even if you need to wait for an adult to cross the street. It was already a heady developmental moment for them—for us—when the towers fell.

Now we are adults. At 28, we are just old enough to remember what things were like before the attacks, and young enough to have come of age in a thoroughly post-9/11 country. Our memories of a time without the TSA or the War on Terror are hazy and easy to dismiss, even to ourselves, the way all childhood memories are. On some level, this is true for anyone born in the United States in the early 1990s. But the rupture—the understanding that the events of a single, scary day became foundational to the political and social reality of the entire world—is especially acute for the kids from P.S. 234. For them, it was palpable; it got on their hair and clothes and in their lungs.

That day, and in the weeks and months that followed, they became symbols for a nation reeling from the shock of terrorism. What better metaphor for that collective trauma than a group of schoolchildren jolted out of their normal lives by a surprise attack? Newspapers and magazines published articles about P.S. 234. The kids were frightened, these stories reported, but they still wanted to color and play; childlike wonder was, perhaps, recoverable.

The kids from P.S. 234 would be the first to tell you that others had it much worse. No one I spoke with lost an immediate family member on 9/11, though some of them knew adults who were killed. None of them was permanently displaced, though many lived in the so-called frozen zone near Ground Zero and had to leave their home temporarily. These 8-year-olds were among the thousands of students displaced from downtown schools. They didn’t return to P.S. 234 until February 2002.

But when Darby and I spoke, he told me that he sees his community’s 9/11 story as one of pulling together and his family’s story as one of luck. After the first plane hit, his mom wondered aloud if she should go help out at the scene of the explosion. Darby begged her not to go, to stay with him and his brother. “If she had,” he said, “she might not be with us today.”

For Darby, the primary lesson—a useful one, he thinks—was that bad things happen in the world. As he got older, “a lot of stuff just kind of fell under a rubric of, like, Yeah, that’s expected.” He didn’t suffer from too much anxiety, or PTSD. Better to expect the terrible than be caught off guard.

“You could say, certainly, that that’s a loss of innocence,” Darby reflected. But he can only faintly remember what it was like to have a sense of innocence in the first place.

2001

A week or so after the attacks, the kids started school again at P.S. 41, a couple of miles north. Space was tight, with up to three classes sharing a room. Pranikoff talked with the students about what had happened, asking them to reflect on questions like ‘What did you do to stay safe?’ “Because we were so responsible and because were so calm, and listen to grownups advice not one kid got hurt,” one student wrote. They were encouraged to write letters to whomever they wanted—the mayor, firefighters, relatives. “Dear Bush,” a student wrote in October, “Why Don’t bome them very good? how about starting wiht small Bomes Then the bome’s get Biger, biger and Biger!!” That month, the kids moved out of P.S. 41 and into a Catholic school that had closed.

Darby thought that the fresh starts were exciting, like going back to school after summer vacation—you’re seeing your friends again, and have a lot to catch up on. Others had a harder time adjusting to the new environments.

Jesse Benedetti internalized the message that there was someone out there who wanted him and his peers dead, for no reason at all—or at least no good reason. He still lives downtown and works in film production, and his gravelly voice has a world-weariness to it. September 11 “made life feel more real,” he told me. “I felt very vulnerable.”

Sean Wils lived on Duane Street, just north of P.S. 234. His mom picked him up at school after the first plane hit, shortly before 9 o’clock; they saw the second plane hit the South Tower on their way home. At their apartment, he remembers watching the ceiling lamp sway, and his mom holding him tight. “When the shaking stopped,” he told me, “she looked out the window and she just said, ‘The building’s gone.’”

Weeks later, back at school, Sean remained on high alert. “For months afterward, every single day, I thought I could die that day,” he said. He asked his parents if they could move out of the city, but they never considered leaving. His mom was the chair of the local community board, and, the week after 9/11, she started taking Sean with her to some of the meetings about how to rebuild the neighborhood. Eventually the daily fear went away.

At one point, when the kids were still at P.S. 41, Laura Bush visited. When students and teachers saw all the police and security vehicles, their first thought was that something terrible had happened, again. The first lady was given letters from students, and she read some aloud, including Sean’s, which dryly thanked George W. Bush for his protection and ended with an all-caps “GOD BLESS AMERICA.” In Sean’s view, the president had not protected them at all—his letter was pure sarcasm. Somehow, that got past whoever was in charge of selection.

The first lady would not be the only special visitor. Showing support to P.S. 234 gave people a way to feel like they were doing something, anything, to help, when so little could be done. The perks were nice, if a little random. Jackie Chan made an appearance and let people touch his biceps. Peter Yarrow came to sing “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Schools across the country offered to start pen-pal programs (P.S. 234 politely declined; classes were already behind on the curriculum as it was). Kids in Hiroshima folded and sent 10,000 paper cranes.

“It was hard sometimes to grasp that we were really the focus of the situation,” Sonia Marshall recalls. She lives in Los Angeles now, and when we spoke, she was visiting her mom in New York for the first time since before the pandemic started. People sent stuffed animals and friendship bracelets and plants and cards and books. It became a running joke among the teachers: Another round of teddy bears!

“Some of it was a bit extravagant,” Nadia Galpern, another classmate, says. P.S. 234 was well funded, with active and well-connected parents. Still, it felt good to know that people were thinking about them. “We didn’t need money,” Harrison Spelman told me. “We needed paper cranes.”

Drawing of two girls
Kara Pranikoff, the kids' teacher, saved the drawings they made after 9/11, including this one by Nadia Galpern. (Nadia Galpern / Courtesy of Kara Pranikoff)

Parents, worried about exposure to unhealthy levels of dust and asbestos, and about the mental health of their children, debated how soon the school could safely return to its building downtown. But most of the kids lived in the neighborhood anyway. They smelled the lingering stench and saw soldiers patrolling the street corners. In December, Pranikoff had them respond to the prompt “Do you want to return to P.S. 234?” Nadia wrote:

I want to go back to P.S. 234 because I live one block from the school so I think we should go back because I live there and I see it every day and it wasn’t as bad as the first time. I miss P.S. 234 so I want to go back.

If they went back, Sean wrote at the time, they could “do our normal things, get back to our routines and live our way in our home.” (He said he remembers privately being more ambivalent about the prospect of going back.)

A couple of months later, they did return. “After many months, the kids at P.S. 234 are finally back home,” LeVar Burton told viewers in an episode of Reading Rainbow that featured some of Pranikoff’s students. The episode includes a music video in which students sing about their gratitude for the support they’ve received and how happy they are to be back at their own school. “I think the idea was to show the world that we were doing okay,” Sonia said.

2021

Harrison Spelman left P.S. 234 a few years after 9/11 and came to my school; he was in my fifth-grade class. I called him in late August, the first time we’d spoken since middle school. He’s a sommelier now; he lives in Bushwick, he said, but not the cool part.

He wanted to tell me about the photos first, “just so you know where I’m at.” On his bedroom wall, he keeps two: one taken from the South Tower in the ’70s, looking north at night, and another taken from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, looking toward the towers. Seeing them every day, he said, “makes it real to me—the life before, which obviously is a very small part of my life now.” He likened the feeling to the concept of terroir, in wine parlance: “These images for me are a sense of time and place.” In the photos on Harrison’s walls, the towers aren’t the symbols they became, fraught with politics and patriotism. They are just buildings, existing alongside other buildings, full of people, full of life.

The day itself, and what he saw—people jumping out of those buildings, burning papers falling from the sky—is still hard to think about. A few years ago, he found a copy of a Time magazine his mom had saved that was full of 9/11 photographs. I’m ready for this, he thought. He surprised himself by crying as he slowly turned the pages.

Kate Nadel is now a graduate student in information sciences. (She is also dating my cousin.) After 9/11, her mom framed a photo Kate had taken for a second-grade class project: the towers, as seen from their roof. Sometime that fall, she had Kate stand on the roof again, in the same spot, and hold the framed photo. This time, the sky behind her was empty. In the newer photo, she’s wearing a black I ♥ NY T-shirt and a bright-green bandana. She’s smiling, a kid humoring her mom—she thought the whole thing was kind of silly. Today she sees it as a record of grief, several times over: grief for the old landscape of the neighborhood, where the towers were simply a fact, taken for granted—and, more recently, for the ease of that familiar spot on the roof, the feeling of having a home base in Tribeca. (When Kate left for college, her parents sold the apartment and moved out of the city.) The photo of the photo makes those layers of loss less abstract. “This is what we have,” Kate says of the photo, an accounting of “lost things and places.”

When he was 19, Harrison spent a few months working in New Orleans. He noticed a difference between people who had arrived in the city after Hurricane Katrina and people who had lived there during the storm. There was a seriousness about the people in the latter group. “You could just tell,” he said. “That kind of educated me. It showed me, like, they’re survivors. It helped me to understand who I was.” He considers himself extremely fortunate, as survivors go—but he’s  seen the ads on the subway advertising benefits available to 9/11 first responders, and the TV commercials about mesothelioma. I asked him if he worries about that stuff at all. “Am I afraid? Yes, I’m afraid, but I’m afraid of a lot of things. And until those things manifest, I can handle a little fear.”

I didn’t get the sense from anyone I spoke with that fear is keeping them up at night. But even those who say they’re totally fine admit that a few things still nag at them from time to time. Sean Wils lives in San Francisco now, and works for a nonprofit that develops affordable permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness. “I’m not someone who lets the lows get me too low and not someone who lets the highs in life get me too high,” he told me when we first spoke, in August. “I think a lot of that is grounded in 9/11 … I feel very comfortable in moments of crisis.” When we spoke again in mid-September, he had just returned to San Francisco after visiting his family in New York, where he took a walk on September 11 retracing his steps from P.S. 234 to his parents’ apartment. What he’d said about being comfortable in moments of crisis was true, he reiterated, but the experience of sweating profusely on the flight back had reminded him that he was still an anxious plane rider. (This feeling is common among the P.S. 234 alums, though some people I spoke with said they didn’t fear planes or flying at all.)

Drawing of the Twin Towers.
Sean Wils's drawing of the towers. He saw the second plane hit after his mom picked him up from school. (Sean Wils / Courtesy of Kara Pranikoff)

So much is unknowable. Did the asthma Nadia developed at age 12 have anything to do with 9/11? “People were like, ‘You can’t go back [to P.S. 234].’ But I was living there,” she told me. “I had to live somewhere.” Nadia lives in Astoria now and is a hospice social worker. She still participates in the official 9/11 health surveys. “I think it’s affected my life in ways I don’t know,” she said.

It’s impossible to say, in a lot of cases, if 9/11 is why someone got cancer, or a factor in someone else’s constant low-grade anxiety. As a teenager, a student from Pranikoff’s class took his own life. What effect, if any, did 9/11 have on him?

Several of the people I talked with told me that as they’ve gotten older, they’ve come to see their unusual proximity to history as something more than a painful, if formative, set of personal memories. Darby is normally a private person, he said, but he replied to me when I reached out, because he feels a sense of obligation to talk about 9/11 on the record. “You know how they talk about the last World War II vets who are alive?” he asked. “You don’t have to wait until you’re, like, 90-something to start feeling urgent about” documenting these stories. This is why Darby, like Nadia, still participates in the health studies. “I’d like to think that we should try to be constructive about these things,” he said.

Kara Pranikoff believed in the power of preserving her class’s experience too. For years, though, she had a hard time talking about 9/11. In the spring of 2002, she had her first baby. Before she went on leave, she collected some documents from the school year—students’ work about 9/11, news clips, the letters she’d written to parents—and stowed them away. Until I got in touch with her this summer, she had not revisited the files. But the papers were there, sitting in a glossy paper shopping bag, waiting. “I knew it was important,” she said. She just wasn’t ready to deal with it yet.

When we first spoke, in July, Pranikoff had just finished her final year of teaching at P.S. 234. Once again, she had been tasked with helping 8-year-olds carry on with the business of schooling as the world fell apart around them. In mid-September, shortly after the anniversary of 9/11, I asked her how she thought those kids would remember, 20 years from now, being in school in 2020 and 2021. Pranikoff considered my question and, in her kind, teacherly way, declined to make any firm predictions. The significance of this past year and a half, she said, “depends on what happens with the world.”

Which, who knows, really? Maybe Pranikoff’s final cohort of students at P.S. 234 will look back in two decades and think about what it was like to listen to their parents worry about the very air they were breathing at school, to have things that used to feel safe and normal suddenly become dangerous or even life-threatening. They’ll remember hearing about people who were very sick or who died from something they had never heard of just a couple of years earlier. Maybe, once they are adults themselves, they will think about how scared the adults must have been, much as the students from Pranikoff’s 9/11 cohort do now when they think back to 2001. Maybe they won’t think about it at all. For kids, the main thing to do is to keep going to school and playing with your friends and practicing your times tables. To carry on. Twenty years is a long time.

Pranikoff was heading out soon, for a drink at the restaurant where Harrison works. “How weird is that?” she asked, laughing. “I’ve known him since he was 7 or 8, and tonight he’s going to pour me a glass of wine.”