By Malcolm Butler
As Addie Smith began her account of being a airline stewardess based out of Newark, New Jersey, during 9/11 back in 2001, the sound of the radios from members of the Ruston Fire Department echoed through the gym at A.E. Phillips Monday morning.
It was the perfect example for the hundreds of students from grades two through eight of what it means to be a first responder.
Although at the program honoring them and remembering the events of 22 years ago, the firemen quickly and as quietly as they could headed out the gym doors to answer the emergency call coming from those radios.
“Boys and girls, did you happen to notice our firefighters walk out,” asked A.E. Phillips Director Dr. Jenny Blalock when she walked back up to the mic following Smith’s emotional story. “I think this was a good opportunity to see that when they get the call they go to help someone. It doesn’t matter when it is, and it doesn’t matter who it is. They go to help.”
A perfect illustration more than two decades after almost 3,000 men and women lost their lives in New York City when the twin towers were targeted by terrorists. More than 400 first responders were amongst those who perished that day, the day America was attacked by terrorists on its own soil.
Ever since that awful day in US history, A.E. Phillips Laboratory School has held a program on or around the anniversary to teach, remember and honor those who were directly and indirectly affected by the attacks.
“In 2001, (then A.E. Phillips Director) Dr. Wiggins started this program,” said Dr. Blalock. “She just made a commitment that A.E. Phillips was going to do this every year moving forward so we would never forget. We are carrying on that tradition to teach our students, but also to honor our local heroes.”
Monday morning’s program started with the school’s kindergarteners and first graders lining up outside the doors of the gym, holding miniature American flags and welcoming the more than 50 local first responders who were invited.
“We invite members of every first responders organization in town,” said Dr. Blalock. “We invite the leaders, but we look to specifically invite any A.E. Phillips parents within those departments to make sure they get the opportunity to come.”
Local responders from the Ruston Fire Department, Lincoln Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, Lincoln Parish Sheriff’s Office, Louisiana Tech University Police Department, Ruston Police Department, Louisiana National Guard and Ruston Marshall’s Office.
“It is really great that they have been doing this for 20-plus years now,” said Kip Franklin, Lincoln Parish Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “It’s so nice that they honor and recognize our local first responders. It means a lot. And the students always do such a nice job.”
Louisiana Tech President Dr. Les Guice and Ruston Mayor Ronny Walker were also in attendance Monday morning.
“I am so pleased that Jenny makes this program a high priority every year,” said Dr. Guice.
Norman Rivera, A.E. Phillips counselor for the past 16 years, said the depth of teaching about 911 varies based on grade due to age. Rivera and Dr. Blalock both said the decision was for the kindergarteners and first graders to participate in their own special way.
“We thought that was best, probably more because of their attention span,” said Rivera. “It is not a short program, especially as it grows. We didn’t want the younger kids to be there and be itching to get out. And a lot of it they don’t understand. But they do understand being welcoming, and they do such a great job of it.
“I had one of our honor guests that came through the line today and said, ‘You know. I was already having a good day, but to come through that little gauntlet was so uplifting.’ I know we have made the right decision by setting that up for those younger kids. The innocence at its best right there.”
Although the school holds the program every year, Dr. Blalock said the teachers are asked to begin prepping their classes for it.
“We teach as age appropriate in the classes about 9/11,” said Dr. Blalock.
Rivera said he sends an email out a few weeks before the program asking teachers to begin their preparation, which also include each class making a “Thank You Poster” that is then presented to each first responder organization at the end of the program.
Following Dr. Blalock’s opening remarks, Smith provided her account of her personal experience as an airline attendant and her trip into New York City on September 10. Smith, who became emotional during the account, was working a flight awaiting to depart Newark Liberty International Airport the morning of 9/11.
“I watched those students during the program, and they were totally focused on the speakers’ remarks,” said Dr. Guice. “They learned about history in a very personal way, and you could see it in their eyes. They were able to understand more about sacrifice, responsibility, and loyalty. The presence of our local first responders gave our students a way to express gratitude for those who protect us all.”
Rivera said the program has changed somewhat over the years, including outgrowing its original site of the A.E. Phillips courtyard due to its popularity.
“The meat of the program has been the same when it comes to patriotic music, songs that really talk about our heroes,” said Rivera. “As far as who we have invited, it has actually grown as years have gone by. The last five years or so we have held it in the gym because of the need for more space.”
Rivera said he receives various feedback from both teachers and students each year.
“Especially the new students,” said Rivera. “They are like, ‘This is great. We didn’t know.’ And sometimes from students who have been here. A lot of time it’s from the work that the teachers do prior to the event. We want the students to know what 9/11 is and what the purpose of the program is.
“I had one of the students today that came by and her eyes were red. She was a seventh grader. I said, ‘Are you okay?’ She said, ‘We just finished talking more about 9/11, and I just didn’t realize.’ This helps them understand more about what that day means to our history.”
Lincoln Parish Sheriff Stephen Williams agreed.
“Our children need to know about our history, the good and the bad,” said Williams who was in attendance. “I was honored to be a small part of this program and proud to honor those first responders who paid the ultimate sacrifice trying to help their fellow man. This is just one of the great things that make Lincoln Parish special.”