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Park Rapids educators share perspectives on 15th anniversary of 9/11 attacks

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Mike Cool has been a social studies teacher at Park Rapids Area High School for 21 years. He did two tours in Vietnam and knew at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks the event would have a big impact on his future students' lives. (Kevin Cederstrom/Enterprise)2 / 4
Century Middle School teacher Eric Pilgrim was a 16-year-old junior at Park Rapids Area High School on Sept. 11, 2001 and says he remembers being "angry and shocked" at seeing the attacks and his first look at terrorism. (Kevin Cederstrom/Enterprise)3 / 4
Shawn Andress was a teacher at Century Middle School in Park Rapids during the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. She is now the principal and says that day was a "defining moment" for her. (Kevin Cederstrom/Enterprise)4 / 4

Fifteen years ago on Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacked America and now 9/11 is forever a part of our memories. We remember exactly what we were doing that morning when the hijacked planes flew into the World Trade Center, collapsing the Twin Towers.

After the first plane hit, the entire country watched live on television a second plane slam into the second tower. The event had gone from a possible accident to a clear attack on America. Two other hijacked planes followed the World Trade Center, one flying into the Pentagon and another crashing in a Pennsylvania field.

Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016 marks the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Park Rapids Area Schools, just a week before, had opened its new Century School for the first day of school. The date, 9-11-01, is etched in concrete beneath the school's flagpole. Today's high school students were only a couple years old, and students younger than freshmen hadn't been born yet.

Mike Cool teaches American history and American government at Park Rapids Area High School and recalls how on Sept. 11, 2001 he learned of the attacks from fellow Social Studies teacher Walt Harrison, who had the television news on and was looking at the smoking World Trade Center tower.

"He knew I had been a pilot and asked me how a plane would not have seen the tower on such a clear day," Cool said. "While we were watching, the second tower was hit. We knew it wasn't an accident then."

Cool recalls students coming into the classroom for the 10th grade American History class that morning. He had turned the television on and they watched as the Pentagon news came in and towers began to fall.

"I remember telling the students that we may be going to war if it was an attack as it appeared," Cool said. "With President Bush circling somewhere in Air Force One, it sure looked like a war situation was being prepared for."

Cool recalls the students were pretty quiet and watched the television coverage intently. Some asked questions, like if the National Guard would be called up, as some had relatives serving. There was confusion and Cool tried not to speculate too much as the news was fragmented during those early hours of the attack. Some students asked to call their families, and some parents picked up students from school.

"Teachers had a wide variety of reactions as we all have had different experiences. Having lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK assassination and two tours in Vietnam, I think I mostly tried to keep the students calm as fear could have spread rapidly," Cool said. "Mostly, I felt sad. Not only about the loss of life but more about how I thought 9/11 events were going to impact my students' lives in the future."

Cool is in his 21st year teaching in Park Rapids and has had dozens of students and friends serve in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11.

"We discuss the war on terror in our classes today. I teach a generation of students who have known only this war," he said. "They ask good questions about why war decisions seem to be made politically and not with military reasoning. I wish I could give them a good answer as I had the same questions during Vietnam. Probably the best lesson I can teach them now is try to be an informed voter and take an active role being a good citizen."

Student then, teacher now

Eric Pilgrim was a 16-year-old junior then at Park Rapids Area High School and now he's a 6th grade teacher at Century Middle School.

"The first I heard about the attacks was from one of my teachers/coaches, Mr. Jacobson. I was walking down the hallway in the morning and he stopped me to tell me a plane had just flown into one of the towers," Pilgrim recalls. "At the time, I just remember thinking, 'Wow, that's really strange. How could a pilot not see a big building?'"

Pilgrim said he thought at the time it was an accident and had no idea it was a planned attack.

"I can remember that moment and talking with that teacher like it was yesterday. Growing up, people always talked about how they remembered exactly what they were doing and where they were when Pearl Harbor was attacked or when JFK was assassinated," Pilgrim said. "Now I understand. I'll never forget where I was when I found out."

The sight of the planes crashing and the buildings collapsing made him sick, and he felt horrible knowing that innocent people died that way. And after learning it was a planned attack, Pilgrim said he remembers feeling angry that someone could come into our country and do this.

"I wanted the people responsible to pay for what they'd done. I was angry and shocked. That was my first real understanding of terrorism and the fact that there are people out there who hate Americans just because of who we are and what we stand for."

Pilgrim started teaching in 2009 and this year moved from teaching 4th to 6th grade. His students weren't born yet when 9/11 happened and some at that age find it difficult to understand the attacks.

Defining moment

School administrators Shawn Andress and Jeff Johnson were both middle school teachers 15 years ago. Andress is now the middle school principal and Johnson is the high school principal.

Andress remembers Principal Gravalin coming into her second hour 8th grade geography class and handing her a slip of paper to read. The note said something about the planes being flown into the Twin Towers and Pentagon. Andress recalls not much was known of the attacks at that time.

"This was a period of time in which we did not have instant access to phones for updates," she said. "I remember making a quick announcement about what we knew at the time and letting students know we would update them with information as it came in."

Andress made the professional call not to turn on the television in the classroom that day. She said having classroom televisions on was discussed among colleagues at lunch that day.

"With what we knew and had seen ourselves with a television on in the staff lunchroom at 11 in the morning, the images being broadcast, the realness of the events were too raw, considering some of our middle school age kids are only 10."

Andress said during the upcoming days, she remembers having constant conversations surrounding the events, pictures, emotions and media coverage. By the next day, most of the students had watched the media reports with their families.

"We spent many days unpacking those moments," Andress said.

In the next five-plus years following the 2001 attacks, Andress took the anniversary date, or school day closest to it, to play a video tribute she found online. They created letters and thank you cards to those that had served in the military and at the annual Veterans Day program continued to honor those who died.

"It was a defining moment for me personally and professionally at the time," Andress said.

Johnson was teaching industrial technology at Century Middle school in 2001.

"I remember 9/11 as a sad day in the eyes of students and staff," Johnson said.

Century School had just opened the doors and the television wasn't working yet in his classroom.

"I heard rumblings from the construction workers still working in the buildings and I made my way to the main technology feed room and watched the first tower fall on a one-foot square TV," Johnson said, amazed to see what had just happened. "We spent the rest of the day talking about it in my classroom. I don't really remember getting much work done."

Johnson left the school that day and walked by the flagpole in the Century parking lot.

"They poured the cement around the pole that day and wrote 9-11-01. A day we will never forget."

Johnson looks back at the days to follow and remembers the great pride everyone was feeling to be an American, and how everyone was wearing red, white and blue.

"Proud to be an American, but a little scared of what the unknown was in the future."