Sixth in a series

Caroline Patrie had normal first-day-of-school jitters as she prepared to launch a new career as a high school science teacher on Sept. 11, 2001.

“It was my very first day teaching and I was really anxious,” said Patrie, now 55 and a teacher at Portland High School. “I was thinking, ‘Am I going to do this right? I get to meet all these students finally.'”

Patrie grew up on Peaks Island and went to high school in Yarmouth. She began her teaching career in Vermont and was just a few minutes into her first period physics class with a small group of Vergennes Union High School juniors and seniors when the chair of her department came into the classroom and asked to talk to her for a few minutes.

She told Patrie an airplane had just struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center and the school was gathering in the library. The excitement of her first day was instantly replaced with a feeling of chaos and dread.

“She said, ‘Why don’t you bring the kids down?'” Patrie recalled. “I just kind of followed her lead for the rest of the day. You don’t get a lesson plan for anything like that.”

Students and staff were in the library watching a live television feed as the second tower was struck by a plane. At a base across the street from the school, members of the Vermont National Guard already were beginning to assemble to respond. Some students went home early.

“I’ll never forget that moment of, ‘Are we at war here? What’s going on?'” Patrie said. “Kids were crying. We were crying. It was just a really anxious moment for all of us.”

Patrie didn’t return to teaching physics that day. Instead, she and other teachers spent the rest of the day comforting students and helping them process the events.

“There was no learning that went on that day in terms of academics,” she said. “But the personal learning and growth that happened in that moment and how it affected people is still palpable. I’ve seen a few students from that year in recent years and that’s what they remember most. … They remember that moment and me being one of the people there to help them through that. It really cemented for me what it means to be an educator.”

Patrie returned to Maine and began teaching at Portland High School two years ago. The lesson she learned about taking care of students first when they are confused or frightened is still there, and Patrie felt it kick in most recently on March 13, 2020 – the day Portland students and teachers were sent home to finish the school year remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Not knowing, not understanding what’s going on. I did kind of have to go back to that. This is a process that’s going to unfold and really what’s important is taking care of my students and their families as best as I can before we do anything else,” Patrie said. “I think that’s something that’s been deeply seeded in me since that event.”

Patrie’s high school students today weren’t yet born when 9/11 occurred. Patrie said she will likely talk with some of her students about the 20th anniversary and her experience. Being a biology and environmental science teacher, it isn’t a topic she would normally cover in classes, but she said it is something that’s important for students today to know about.

“I think it’s important for them to hear it and many of them will have really good questions and want to know the relationship between now and then,” Patrie said. “I think it’s definitely something our school should and would address, especially in history classes.”

Personally, she said that first traumatic day on the job will always inform her philosophy as an educator.

“It’s teaching people how to learn and how to process the world around us, rather than necessarily learning facts and figures,” Patrie said. “You have to take all that and put it into your learning, but it’s really about becoming a good citizen and a grown-up.”

Coming tomorrow: An ironworker helps at Ground Zero and life is never the same

Read Sunday’s profile: Ticket agent struggles with guilt, trauma over two decades

Read Monday’s profile: Watching 9/11 attacks from classroom sparked social activism

Read Tuesday’s profile: Soldier from Portland knew that 9/11 attacks would change his life

Read Wednesday’s profile: For sisters of Mainer on doomed flight, ‘It’s the day our family changed forever’

Read Thursday’s profile: ‘They didn’t know me or what I would do for this country’

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