From A Whisper To A Tear

by Jennifer Barrs
The Tampa Tribune
September 1, 2002

The Sarasota school President Bush was visiting on Sept. 11 still feels tied to that day.

Last Sept. 11 - has it already ben a year? - 19 terrorists used four hijacked jetliners to pierce America to the core.

We are a different nation for what happened. We are a different individually, too.

Today, The Tampa Tribune, News Channel 8 and mount a journalism project called No Life Untouched examining how e have changed in the year since the attacks. It will appear through next week. The Tribune's story today begins where it began for the president - in a Sarasota classroom, reading to children.

SARASOTA - Kay Daniels isn't telling, so don't even ask.

Don't ask what was in George W. Bush's letter to the teacher whose late father was the son of a former slave.

"Uh-uh-uh. No, no, no," Daniels says, her voice rippling with don't-go-there warnings about the personal note she received around Sept. 17, 2001. "That will remain sacred."

Daniels, you see, was standing near Bush last Sept. 11 when White House chief of staff Andrew Card whispered in the presidential ear of tragedies. Precisely what Card said is uncertain, but he reportedly told Bush - who already knew a commercial plane had struck the north tower of New York's World Trade Center - that the south tower also had been hit.

In that instant, Daniels says, she knew "this wasn't the same person who had sat down in that chair." Bush grimaced and, obviously lost in thought, forgot about the book in his lap.

Daniels squirmed, silently. Her second-graders stared. "Pet Goat," the chosen story, suddenly was put out to pasture.

Seconds passed in silence: 15, 30, maybe more.

Bush picked up the book and read with the students for eight or nine minutes.

Then he advised the kids to stay in school and told them to be good citizens, stepped away to confer with aides, returned to give Daniels a firm handshake, and left.

"That day changed my life in so many ways," Daniels says. "I remember my husband and I talking [before the presidential election]. He was for Bush all the way. I had a few reservations. But all those reservations were dismantled on Sept. 11, 2001, in Room 301."

Dismantled, too, has been the routine at Emma E. Booker, the Sarasota elementary school named for a black educator who first taught in this town in 1914 and later became principal of the old Davis Elementary in St. Petersburg.

Bush was in Sarasota stumping for education, at a school particularly proud of its commitment to the written word.

Yet since Sept. 11 - since the world saw Bush deliver his first solemn statement on the attacks in a room crowded partly with kids - the school hasn't been the same.

"People aren't really aware that, at Booker, we have never moved away from 9/11," says Principal Gwendolyn Tose-Rigell.

"Every single day someone calls, from as far away as Holland, Japan, Sweden. Sometimes you are a part of history; sometimes you create history. That day we became all of those things, and there is a responsibility that follows that."

The Story Behind Booker

The responsibilities actually began long before, when Booker was chosen as Bush's second Florida stop in that second week of September. The school had a reputation for reading success, much of it centered on the staff's devotion to a phonics-based program created by SRA/McGraw-Hill.

That style of study is suited perfectly to students who never may have learned about merriment, monsters and make-believe, Daniels says. "We are often these kids' first experience with books."

Instead, Tose-Rigell describes a good number of youngsters bounced between parents, grandparents and foster parents.

She estimates about 90 percent of Booker's students participate in the federally funded free lunch programs. More than a few live in homes without a telephone. Some struggle in poverty.

Yet Tose-Rigell believes the children at Booker were, and are, well equipped to deal with Sept. 11's emotional fallout.

"There is a resiliency about our children," she says. "These kids suffer losses all the time. Whereas other kids might have been overwhelmed by it, ours have suffered a lot more upheaval."

Indeed, a year later, the children who were at the school that day seem resolute. Matter-of-fact. Gravely concerned about the children who lost their parents. And disappointed they didn't all get to shake the president's hand.

"On TV [the tragedies] didn't look very scary, but they looked real sad," says 8-year-old Lazaro Dubroq, who knew something was strange when the president left Daniels' room so abruptly. "I think the people who did it were mean, and I hope they catch them and throw them in jail."

Another student, Tyler Radkey, thought the president left in a hurry because he was headed to the bathroom.

Eight-year-old Natalia Jones-Pinkney is simply glad she got to ask the president about his goals and hopes for children like her. It was the only question he had time to answer. "He told us he wanted to make sure that we all graduated and went to college," Natalia says. "And yes, I was very sad, but I'm not scared now."

Adds Stephanie Pinkney, Natalia's mother: "Natalia asked a lot of questions about the attacks. She couldn't understand why someone would do something like that. I tried to explain as best I could, that it was lot of jealousy and hatred. She understood it better that way."

To understand the impact the events had on the Booker family, teachers and parents refer to intriguing details of the day. For instance, Bush sat with Daniels and her students not because they fulfilled some complicated formula; her classroom merely was situated next to the school's north door, making it easier to organize elaborate security.

While Bush was contemplating Card's remarks, Daniels' thoughts were a blur. She knew something was amiss; nonetheless, she had to carry on with the lesson. "I couldn't gently kick him. ... I couldn't say, "OK, Mr. President. Pick up your book, sir. The whole world is watching.' " I know he is the president, but that was my room he was in."

As he was leaving Daniels' room, he told her only, "There are matters I have to attend to." He didn't explain anything to her class. Instead, he went into the school's media center, where he made a televised statement to a room crammed with reporters, guests, parents and students who had hoped to chat with him.

Also, after learning of the tragedies, teachers tried to initiate "teachable moments," Tose-Rigell says. They pulled down maps, discussed terrorism and talked about fears. The administration also allowed parents to pick up their children early. Very few did.

In hindsight, Daniels and Tose-Rigell are convinced that Booker Elementary was actually one of the safest places in the world on Sept. 11, 2001. And, they maintain that the president was there for a reason, a reason they can't really explain beyond a feeling deeply rooted in religious faith.

Marking Its Place In History

Walk into the main office - where a large glass cabinet groans with Sept. 11 memorabilia - and that feeling expands with a rush. A letter from Bush thanks his friends at Booker for "understanding why it was important for me to leave early." A signed proclamation declares Sept. 14, 2001, the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for the Victims of the Terrorist Attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Magazines from around the world chronicle the catastrophe, in languages even the most voracious reader can't reckon with.

Meanwhile, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2002, the school will conduct a private assembly for all the children, parents and guests who were on campus last year. Florida's Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan will be there. So will Secretary of Education Rodney Paige. President Bush won't be able to make it.

And Daniels likely will cry.

"I know for what purpose I'm called - to make these children become productive citizens," Daniels says. "I explained to them that those people made bad decisions. That they stole and murdered, and that we don't expect that of them, Booker students. I told them they need to do what's right. And that it started right now. Sept. 11. And every day after that for the rest of their lives."; Reporter Jennifer Barrs can be reached at (813) 259-7832.


Copyright 2002 The Tribune Co.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of criminal justice, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.