The children at Vincent Mauro Elementary School are not alone in their struggle to grasp the magnitude of 6,000 deaths in one hour, an hour they spent settling into their classrooms after a quick breakfast.
The name Osama bin Laden draws blank stares, but say the name Aaliyah and they nod in understanding. The death of the 22-year-old R&B singer, who perished in a plane crash one month ago, rocked their lives too.
“I feel bad for the babies who were born today and have to see the world as it is,” a fourth grader in Linda Perrotti’s class said Friday during a discussion of Sept. 11’s events.
As part of a citywide effort in New Haven public schools to assuage pain and rally spirits, the teachers and 550 students of Vincent Mauro Elementary declared Friday Red, White and Blue Day, marking the occasion by waving handmade Old Glorys while marching around the school decked out head-to-toe in patriotic colors.
For one day, this public school had uniforms. During one lunch period, two girls sat side by side, wearing matching red, white and blue plaid jumpers. A green turtleneck or black shirt was rare, but so was traditional Islamic head-dress — the hijab head scarves worn by women and the koofis by men. The school does not have exact numbers on its Islamic population, only that it is “very slim.”
Fourth-grade teacher Bob Davis had not seen Hakim, a boy who usually wears a koofi to school, in the hallways lately.
“And I haven’t seen the little girl with a scarf. I hope their parents don’t have a fear about their kids in school,” Davis said.
On the day of the attacks, principal Denise Coles-Cross, who has headed the school for 11 years, went from classroom to classroom spreading the news to students. She chose to avoid the word Muslim in her explanations. In Davis’ classroom, the terrorists had only one name, “very mean people,” for fear that recent events would spawn stereotypes in the school.
“They see a scarf. Oh, there’s Muslim people. They bombed the World Trade Center.” Davis said. “I don’t want them to make a connection.”
The superintendent of New Haven Schools, Reginald R. Mayo, was on hand to observe Red, White and Blue Day. His concern, too, was racial stereotypes.
“I’ve got to make sure that people understand we preach tolerance,” Mayo said.
Coles-Cross has a friend who worked in the World Trade Center and is now missing. On Red, White and Blue Day, the children watched their principal cry.
“I let the children see it,” Coles-Cross said. “Because I’m a human being and they are too.”
Setting up camp in the school foyer, Coles-Cross was available to comfort any anxious children.
“I think back to when I was a child and I wanted to talk about things,” she said.
On Sept. 11, students crowded around TVs for a portion of the day. Not all schools turned on TVs during the day, but teachers at Vincent Mauro felt that the students deserved an explanation.
Studies have suggested that younger children sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between footage of violence on the news and violence in movies. But here, students seemed to know the events were real.
“They knew that it wasn’t a movie where everyone’s going to be OK in the end,” Davis said.
Students with relatives in Brooklyn became anxious and were allowed to call home. By most accounts, no students were directly affected by any of the deaths.
Since most students couldn’t point out Afghanistan on a map, few could understand the political fallout from the attacks. Teachers found that Aaliyah’s death and gang violence were helpful analogies.
“Once they equated it with gangs in their communities, they could reason,” said fourth-grade teacher Barbara Best, who sang “America the Beautiful” on Red, White and Blue Day. “They understood that it’s them and not us. They still got the feeling of security.
“I want them to concentrate on day-to-day living.”
Teachers said students showed no anger, only concern. Their goal for Red, White and Blue Day was to mirror the country’s solidarity by uniting the school.
“Everybody has to pull together,” said Sean Hardy, a public relations officer and teaching assistant for Vincent Mauro. “It’s not a Democratic thing. It’s not a Republican thing. It’s a country thing.”
In fourth-grade teacher Linda Perotti’s classroom, the question was posed, “What can we do now to make the world better?”
In the last row of the class, nine-year-old Mariah Wright, proudly wearing a pair of blue jeans sparkling with glitter, raised her hand.
“We should just stay together and pray,” she said.