NEW YORK — Twenty years later, there’s one image from Sept. 11, 2001, seared in the mind of Jacky Grossman, then principal of Greenwich Village Middle School in Manhattan.
Grossman’s school was close enough to the twin towers to have a direct view of the attacks, but far enough not to be damaged by their collapse. Education Department supervisors told the young principal to be prepared to welcome students and teachers fleeing elementary schools in the shadow of the buildings.
“When I close my eyes, one of my most vivid memories is standing on the steps to the (school) entrance ... and I saw the folks from the downtown schools running with their students up the West Side Highway,” Grossman, 53, recalled.
“I saw them coming covered in soot with hundreds of kids behind them also covered in soot. They had 5-year-olds ... to see all these really little kids running up the highway, it was intense.”
The harrowing sight of the escaping kids and teachers spurred an instinctual reaction in Grossman.
“I have a memory standing with my arms spread wide open saying ‘come in,’” she recalled. “We all waited with each other ... we were all helping.”
Grossman was thrust into the role of protector of the middle-school students and educators in her care as soon as the first plane hit on that bright Tuesday morning.
She was holding a meeting of the student government, and her shocked middle-schoolers ran to fifth-story windows with a direct view of the the World Trade Center as soon as they heard the news.
“Almost immediately, within seconds, we realized this is something kids should not be seeing, and closed the shades,” she recalled.
The protector instinct was one Grossman inherited from her Holocaust survivor parents, who made it a mission to “shield me from horrible things.”
She called on that instinct again and again during that chaotic day and the painful weeks and months to come.
Grossman stayed in the school until 10 p.m. that night, when the last student was picked up by their parents. She was prepared to take the youngster home, she said.
The school opened its doors for the rest of the year to the two elementary schools whose buildings were damaged by the attacks — embracing the cramped quarters.
“We just took such good care of each other,” Grossman recalled. The staff ate lunch together every day that year, and when Grossman got married in May 2002, she invited the whole staff to her wedding.
“The connections forged in that time were so deep,” she explained.
The life and death stakes of that day left an indelible impression on Grossman, and forever changed her understanding of the role of educators.
“When you realize you are responsible for the lives and safety of people’s children, that is daunting,” she said.
The lessons she learned about leading a school during 9/11 and its aftermath have also shaped her approach to her current work training DOE principals.
“I was always the kind of principal who tried to pour nurturing and love into my community, but after (9/11), I realized we weren’t going to get any of the other work done unless we ensured that people were physically, mentally, and emotionally safe,” she said, noting that her school’s test scores in the year after Sept. 11 hit a record high.
And although much has changed in the world and her life in the intervening 20 years, Grossman’s work feels just as vital and necessary as it did that day.
“I still feel so much like that young principal (I was),” she said. “I don’t even know where that time went.”