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Rumors, Theories Flew at NJ School

September 12, 2001

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SAYREVILLE, N.J. (AP) _ White smoke from Manhattan lingered at the edges of the sky surrounding this bedroom town, and speculation hovered in the hallways and classrooms of its high school.

Rumors spread and grew of a missing football coach, missing parents, terrorist confessions, commercial airlines shot down by American fighters, predictions by Nostradamus.

Students and teachers, nearly all of whom knew somebody directly affected by the attack and many of whom were affected themselves, realized early Wednesday that many of the stories were likely untrue.

But they also realized it could be days before some of their questions could be answered.

``Yesterday, there was confusion,″ said Michelle Murphy, who teaches Spanish at the school, located about 15 miles from Manhattan. ``Today, it’s more anger and distrust.″

For many at Sayreville War Memorial High School, a P.A. announcement late Tuesday morning was the first notice that something was wrong. And principal Jim Brown asked students whose parents worked in the World Trade Center _ at least 45 youngsters _ to gather in the library.

Even without hearing the news, Spanish teacher Gwen Grossling said she was sure then that the buildings were gone.

``It’s more of an innocence lost _ for the adults too,″ Grossling said.

Shantai Dixon, whose father worked on the 12th floor of the second building to fall and whose mother worked nearby, didn’t learn her parents were safe until late Tuesday night.

As Dixon began telling her story during history class, another girl asked that the noisy air conditioner be turned off; the sunny classroom grew warmer, but no one complained.

Dixon’s classmates fell silent as she told how her mother and father frantically tried to reach each other, then walked miles together to the nearest train back to New Jersey. No one said a word when she was done.

``She said there were so many people helping each other and being nice to each other,″ Dixon said. ``You almost never see that from New Yorkers.″

The conversation also turned to the attackers and what should be done.

``Is there anything that could even out what they did to us?″ Michael Ratajczyk asked. None of his classmates answered.

Students worried over airport security. One of the hijacked airplanes left from nearby Newark International Airport.

``When you go anywhere else, they open up your luggage,″ said Lauren Reingold. ``Here, you just walk right through.″

Angela Tomcyzk, who taught the class, said she expected that would change quickly.

In other classes at the high school, work went on as normal after a few minutes of discussion.

``I didn’t know how we could possibly teach anything today, but the kids are just going on,″ Grossling said.

Maurice Elias, a professor of child psychology at Rutgers University, said even for very young children, one question will remain with them the rest of their lives.

``Where were you when the World Trade Centers crumbled to the ground?″

Elias said parents and teachers must discuss the attacks directly and make it clear that the emotional and physical aftermath for the nation could take weeks to resolve. The memories of young and old, he said, are irrevocably changed.

``This is a critical event in the lives of kids. The World Trade Centers are a very visible symbol. Most kids know what they are, and they’re gone,″ Elias said. ``Parents can’t pretend this hasn’t happened, and they need to let kids understand that this is an act of evil.″

Charles Maderal asked his classmates how many of them had been to the top of the World Trade Center. Fewer than half the 16 sophomores and juniors raised their hands.

Matt Lewandowski was not among them.

``I guess I won’t now.″

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