A retired teacher remembers 9/11

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Sep. 10—FAIRMONT — Pam Stalnaker was in the same place when she learned about two of the most significant events in American history, decades apart.

The first event occurred on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Stalnaker was a sophomore at Fairmont Senior High, attending her regular Friday class at 1:30 p.m. when the president was shot. By 2 p.m. Eastern Time, Kennedy was pronounced dead.

Nearly 38 years later, Stalnaker was at Fairmont Senior High when another tragic event occurred. But this time, she instead of being a sophomore herself, she was teaching sophomores.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Stalnaker was preparing for her second period English class when one of her students rushed into the classroom.

"He said to me, 'Mrs. Stalnaker, you need to turn on the TV right now."

Marion County Schools had already been using television in the classrooms, so it wouldn't have been anything new for the students to watch TV at school.

"I thought, oh yeah, right, sure. You're making that up. You just want the TV on," Stalnaker said. But she noticed that the boy — "who was one of my funnier kids" — was very serious.

"The idea of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center seemed so far-fetched," she said. But the boy's urgency convinced her to turn on the TV.

"I was mesmerized," Stalnaker said.

"At first. I thought it must have been a feed from another country," she said, "like someone had hacked into our television networks. I was scared to death."

As events unfolded, the principal asked teachers to maintain some sense of order in the classrooms. He wanted the students to feel reassured.

"We still needed to teach our classes," Stalnaker said. "We knew something was going on in the world, and the kids wanted to talk about it. We were supposed to maintain some kind of order and continue to teach, but I kept the TV on all day."

"It was so difficult — that's what I really remember. It was so frightening," Stalnaker said.

"I don't even remember what I was teaching, but I'm sure it wasn't anything nearly as important as what was going in the world," Stalnaker said.

"And for the kids, it was shocking, it was very, very unreal. I felt sad for the kids."

Parents started showing up at the school to take their kids home. The administration didn't object, as no one there had ever watched a terrorist attack take place right before their eyes on a television screen, and most certainly didn't know what steps to take if children were going home early. Even the tidiest ship was rocked that day.

"We discussed the attacks, even though we had to try to keep things as normal as possible," Stalnaker said. "The kids wanted to talk about it. They were subdued. They were shocked."

"They were usually smart-mouthed — you know how teenagers are — but on this day they were quiet," Stalnaker said.

"The administration was figuring it out as we went along because nothing of this magnitude had ever happened to these kids — they were just high school kids, 14 to 18 years old."

Stalnaker stayed at the school for the entire day, and one of her sons was there as well since he was a student at Fairmont Senior.

In the days that followed, the students were quiet.

"If kids missed school it wasn't held against them," Stalnaker said. "It was hard on the principal. He was trying to keep things under control."

There was a united effort around Fairmont, and around the country, to display American flags where they could be seen outside.

"I remember my husband and I put a flag over our living room window that hung outside for over a year," Stalnaker said. "That day stayed on my mind forever."

After teaching for 35 years, Stalnaker retired 12 years ago. She still resides in Fairmont, right around the corner from Fairmont High.

"I went to that high school, my kids went to that high school, and I taught at that high school," she said.

To reach Lori Riley, email lriley@timeswv.com.

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