Photo above: Kiazia Tarver, 5, clasps her hands during a 9/11 memorial service in New Jersey as she sits near a large flag made by her and fellow elementary school students. (Mel Evans / Associated Press)
Middletown, New Jersey —
Middletown, New Jersey, is a tight-knit community of 67,000 people located along the Jersey Shore about a little over an hour’s drive from Manhattan.
On September 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City, and the world watched as the towers fell to the ground and thousands of people died — 37 of them from Middletown, second only to the number of people who died from New York.
The area schools handled the news differently. The high school students were made aware of the situation, and some opted to drive home. Given how many people in town had ties to people who worked in the two buildings, educators chose not to tell students in the elementary and middle schools.
Many of the children who grew up in Middletown and have first-hand memories of the sadness of the days and weeks that followed have now grown up and are educators at the same schools they attended.
They didn't live through it, but they know so much about it.
In the fall of 2016, it’s likely that a freshman in high school was born after Sept. 11, 2001. Most children have no first-hand memories of the attack that hurt their town so deeply.
It is now up to the teachers who lived through the horrors to impart the legacy of those who died, and the tragedy and reality of the terrorist attack.
“They know what happened, they’re aware of terrorism, this cruel attack,” Thompson Middle School math teacher Cara Muratore told Rare.
Muratore was 11 years old during the terrorist attacks and now teaches in the same school that she attended on 9/11. Even though Cara’s students were born long after the rubble had been cleared, they too have constant reminders of the tragedy.
“They didn’t live through it, but they know so much about it,” Muratore said.
Cristina Fox was in the seventh grade on 9/11 and remembers that the main staircase was closed because they didn't want students to look out the windows and see the thick cloud of smoke rising over the Manhattan skyline.
This knowledge hit home for Cara when a student told her that his father worked at the World Trade Center but had decided not to go to work that day.
“His next breath was ‘I would not be born right now … I would not be here,’ “Muratore explained.
As a math teacher, Cara must also deal with some uncomfortable moments whenever a math problem’s answer is 911.
“We get silence in the room,” Muratore said. “I tell them it’s just a number.”
Cristina Fox — now a math teacher at Middletown High School South — was in the seventh grade on 9/11. She recalls that the main staircase at Bayshore Middle School was closed to students. The staircase was made of glass, and the school was close enough to the water that people could see the thick cloud of smoke rising over the Manhattan skyline.
Why would anybody do something like this? It's unfortunate that, as a teacher, you don't have the answer to that question.
Kevin Cullen is a Middletown native and graduate of Middletown schools, and he’s now a vice principal at Bayshore — the same school Fox attended. Throughout his career as a history teacher and administrator, he has had to field questions from students.
“Why would anybody do something like this?” Cullen says his students would ask. “It’s unfortunate that, as a teacher, you don’t have the answer to that question.”
Cullen always encourages discussion about the day and the town’s deep connection to it. He explains that, each year, the line of questioning would take a different tone as the students became more removed from the tragedy.
“The longer I taught, the further removed so many students were from the events,” Cullen said. “I wouldn’t really allow for that to happen.”
Even eight or 9 years later, “I made sure that we would address it in great detail so that the events were never forgotten and we made sure that we paid homage to those people.”
It's amazing how quickly you can just turn something into a page in a history book.
Middletown South guidance secretary Vickie Johnson was also born and raised in Middletown. In the past two decades, she has gotten to know thousands of names and faces of township students as they grow up.
When Johnson thinks back to that sunny Tuesday morning and how she watched the towers burn from across the bay, she marvels at how fast a living horror becomes a piece of history.
“It’s amazing how quickly you can just turn something into a page in a history book,” she said.
This is part of a personal, original Rare series reflecting on a national-turned-hometown tragedy. See the complete series and find full 9/11 anniversary coverage at on.rare.us/911.
The death and life of my hometown | Reflecting on 9/11, a national-turned-hometown tragedy for Middletown, N.J.
A moment in tragedy | How this train station became an unlikely symbol of healing after the 9/11 attacks
A legacy of kindness | After her brother died on 9/11, a woman found this unique way to spread peace
“Get your aircraft to the ground” | 15 years after 9/11, this pilot remembers the day air travel came to a grinding halt
A legacy of bravery, sacrifice | As the towers started to burn on 9/11, this officer rushed from his post to save as many lives as possible
Life’s greatest gift amid heartbreak | With tears in her eyes, she remembers a new mom whose husband didn’t come home on 9/11
A sobering connection | This teacher’s perspective on how many people from her town died on 9/11 will bring you to tears