Tony Maurer was in his second year of teaching social studies at Pequot Lakes High School when the Twin Towers fell.
He remembers walking into the school office that morning and seeing the news playing on the TV.
“Barb, who was our secretary, said, ‘Did you see this, Tony?’ She said, ‘Looks like a plane has hit the World Trade Center.’ And you could see the smoke … and I was like, ‘Oh man, that’s crazy.’ My first thought was it must be a little Cessna or somebody’s personal plane,” Maurer recalled during a phone interview Thursday, Sept. 9.
The TV was on in the background of his classroom that morning, as Maurer worked on lesson plans and students began to filter in.
As soon as he told the kids, “A plane hit the World Trade Center,” the second aircraft struck.
“We watched that live, and that was when you knew, holy cow, this isn’t an accident,” he said. “And it was just surreal.”
Today, Maurer teaches about the events of 9/11 to students who weren’t alive at the time. For those kids, the date just marks another historic event.
“When you’re talking about it now, it’s the equivalent of when we were in school, and they were talking to us about Pearl Harbor,” he said. “ … So for them, it is some faraway place and a faraway time when everything was in black and white.”
But Maurer still reminisces about Sept. 11, 2001, with his students, sharing what the tone of the day felt like and how it impacted him and those in school at the time.
Twenty years ago, the students were pretty quiet in the morning, taking it all in. But as the day went on, that muted shock turned into fear.
“By the end of the day they were kind of frantic, like, what are they going to hit next? What’s going on?” Maurer said. “And then all of the planes were grounded.”
He recalls seeing on the news the flight map of planes in the sky at the time and watching the little dots that represent aircraft disappear throughout the day as the skies cleared.
The kids worried about a potential attack on the White House. Being a social studies teacher, Maurer took the time to talk to his students about the line of succession in the event the president or vice president dies and the idea of a designated survivor, which is typically a cabinet member who does not attend important events where the president and other high-ranking officials will be in the event of a disaster. Maurer remembers thinking that could be the first time in his lifetime for the line of succession to come into play.
The terrorist attack consumed the whole school day and the hours after, when Maurer was supposed to be running football practice during his first year as head coach.
“When we went out onto the field, it just didn’t even feel right to be out there,” he said. “... We went to do our practice, and I just didn’t have it in me. And I don’t think the kids did either. It was just such a scary event, so we went out, and we actually just kind of talked about it.”
The players shared how they felt after seeing what they saw that day, and Maurer tried to make sure they were doing OK.
“A lot of them just wanted to go home to see their families,” he said. “It was just very surreal, so we talked for a little bit, and then we cut the kids loose.”
Even playing a football game that next Friday night didn’t entirely feel right, but Maurer was glad he could get the kids doing something they loved.
While emotions ran high throughout the school 20 years ago, that connection isn’t quite there with today’s students.
For Maurer, it was the first time a terrorist attack really hit home.
“When you look at different terrorist attacks throughout history — or wars or whatever — it always seems like it’s some faraway place,” he said. “... And this, it brought it home. And to be part of that and to be talking about that, an attack on our soil, was something that we hadn’t seen before.”
The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center comes to mind, but that still didn’t have nearly the same emotional impact as 9/11.
For today’s students, though, that emotion isn’t quite there.
“What it’s really become for these kids is a historical topic,” Maurer said. “So there’s this emotional piece that’s removed from it because they have no emotional attachment to it at all. … I don’t think they can really grasp it.”
But what Maurer can try to instill in his students is the countrywide unity he felt during that frightening time.
“It was the only time in my life where I felt like everybody was kind of coming together. And even though times weren’t as divided then as they are now, they were still divided, and there was a brief moment where you felt like kids and adults were feeling like Americans,” he said. “... There was a moment where you felt like, we’re in this together, and if anything good came out of that, it was those moments.”
And in another 20 years, students who weren’t around on Jan. 6, 2021, will be learning about the events of that day when the world watched as masses of people stormed the nation's Capitol building. Those kids will likely be in the same boat, struggling to understand the emotional impact a historic event had on those living through it.