“Twenty years ago. It feels like forever, but I recall that day all the time,” says Kay Daniels.
By Sept. 11, 2001, Daniels had been teaching at Sarasota’s Emma E. Booker Elementary School for more than 10 years. That year, her class of 16 second-graders was honored for dramatically raising their reading test scores. Their reward? A visit from President George W. Bush. The president had arrived in Sarasota the night before and had eaten dinner at The Colony on Longboat Key with his brother, then-Gov. Jeb Bush, members of Congress and other local notables. In the morning, he headed to Booker Elementary with his entourage.
Nerves were high as former student Natalia Pinkney, now 27, walked to school, in awe of the limousines outside. Only authorized media outlets were present in the classroom, where students read the story The Pet Goat to the president, who sat at the front.
“I was nervous to read in front of him,” says Dinasty Brown, another student in Daniels’ classroom that day. “Even at 7 years old, I knew what an honor it was.” Bush was promoting his No Child Left Behind Act, an education program to boost underprivileged communities.
Halfway through the reading, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card approached the president and whispered in his ear. Daniels remembers cameras flashing and Bush’s face going from bright to grim. The kids remained unaware of the shift in tone and continued reading.
“I’m glad he let us finish,” says Brown. “It made us feel calm and appreciated.” After the reading, Bush swiftly exited, and silence fell on the room. Bush already knew that a plane had crashed into one of the buildings that made up the World Trade Center. The whisper in his ear told him that a second plane had crashed into the second tower, leaving no doubt that America was under attack.
Daniels was rushed to Bush’s makeshift media office and shown a monitor with scenes of a burning building, billowing smoke and people screaming. She asked where the building was, and the president responded, “New York City.”
“My heart sank,” says Daniels. “I can still feel the pain, realizing people were in the buildings.” Then she addressed the students, who did not cry but were confused. Daniels did not show them any media coverage for fear of traumatizing them. Instead, she sang a gospel song, “Hold On (Change is Comin’),” to comfort them.
“Some reports falsely claim that we were shown the news on television,” says Pinkney. “But that is not true. I didn’t know more until I got home, when my mom was glued to the TV.”
Nearly 3,000 people died and roughly 25,000 people were injured during the 9/11 attacks. The War on Terror, which was launched shortly after 9/11, has lasted for nearly two decades. The last American troops left Afghanistan on Aug. 30, 2021.
Not only did America change, but so did the lives of the students and adults at Booker. Some, including late principal Gwendolyn Tose-Rigell, saw the historical importance.
“It does set [Booker] apart,” said Tose-Rigell in a 2002 interview. “There was another spot on earth affected by this, and it’s a more tender spot because it affected children. This school has an important place in American history.”
For Daniels, teaching about terrorism in age-appropriate ways became part of her life. She still teaches 9/11 lessons to her Booker middle-schoolers and keeps in touch with most students from that 2001 second-grade class, serving as a mentor and shoulder to cry on when reliving their shared trauma.
“I know it sounds crazy, but I feel like I was chosen in a way,” says Brown, now 27. “To be with the president and a part of history.” Brown went on to graduate from Florida State University and now owns a social media business in Dallas, Texas. Pinkney graduated from Southeast High School and Bethune Cookman University. She runs a babysitting business in Sarasota and feels it’s her duty to help raise a new generation of kids, just as Daniels did. “I want to teach with the grace and kindness that Ms. Daniels gave us,” she says.
In honor of 9/11 and Tose-Rigell’s commitment to education, Daniels started the Gwendolyn Tose-Rigell Scholarship Fund, to support the education of all Booker students.
Illustration by Antoine Doré