N.Y. wood shop teacher helping rebuild sense of peace
Nathan Blaney, a Wakefield native and a 1995 URI graduate, initiated a campaign in a school near ground zero to make 1,000 paper cranes.
BY MARION DAVIS
Journal Staff Writer
I shot this so soon after the first plane hit that the smoke plume hadn't even escaped the building yet - 8:49 AM or so.
NEW YORK -- The anniversary fell on the third day of school, on the morning when the children were to gather for a welcome-back assembly.
Knowing they'd have no time to prepare, the teachers at the Village Community School, an alternative school on the far end of West 10th St. that takes children from age 5 to eighth grade, had made plans in late spring.
It had been a tough decision, said Nathan Blaney, a Wakefield native and 1995 graduate of the University of Rhode Island who teaches wood shop, art and film.
Journal photo /John Freidah
FORMER RHODE ISLANDER Nathan Blaney came up with a way for children in his New York City school to focus on peace, rather than on the details of the tragedy of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Some teachers felt it was important to talk about Sept. 11, create some kind of memorial, make sure the children understood, and would remember and honor the victims. Others worried about reawakening the trauma that had been so difficult for the students to overcome.
"We had a lot of debate," Blaney said, recalling his own indecision.
He went home after a faculty meeting thinking about a colleague's suggestion that they focus on peace instead of the details of the tragedy. And he thought, paper cranes.
An artist in many media, Blaney has long loved origami, and years ago, he had enjoyed making paper cranes, a symbol of peace in Japan.
A children's book by Eleanor Coerr, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, tells the true story of a 12-year-old Hiroshima girl who developed leukemia in 1955, and inspired by a legend, set out to fold 1,000 paper cranes to get well. She perished before finishing, but her effort made her a popular heroine.
In his Brooklyn apartment, Blaney tried folding some to make sure 6-year-olds could handle the task. Yes, he thought, they could.
At the school, the idea took off. Together, the teachers decided to make peace the focus of Wednesday's assembly, and then embark on a schoolwide project that would include reading Coerr's book and making 1,000 cranes.
"It felt like the right thing to do," Blaney said. "We're going to put them on display throughout the school. We all envision it as filling up the school, being there as an ever-present symbol."
THERE IS an image of the twin towers at the Village Community School. It's part of a mural that stretches along the school yard's wall, painted by the children in June of 2000 -- all of southern Manhattan, their community.
The wood shop is on the opposite end of that wall from the five-story brick school, right on the edge of Greenwich Street. When teachers stepped onto the sidewalk next to the shop, they used to see the towers directly in front of them, about 20 blocks south of the school.
Classes start at 9 a.m., and so when the first plane struck the World Trade Center last year, the students were just arriving. Blaney was in the shop, on the phone with his wife, Kathy Madden, when his wood shop teaching partner, Judy Kashman, ran in.
"You've got to come out and see this," Kashman said.
Blaney hung up and followed Kashman. The top of the north tower was in flames. He grabbed the camera he keeps in the shop and shot some pictures, then tried to distract the students who were playing outside, hoping to keep them away from the potentially traumatic images.
Parents who arrived in those few minutes lingered, and soon others began arriving to take their children home. As the crisis escalated, teachers herded the remaining students into classrooms where they'd be isolated from the commotion, and they started calling parents.
After the south tower collapsed, the scene outside became surreal. Clouds of ash, dust and smoke billowed over the school, and a flood of terrified, dust-covered people ascended from lower Manhattan, on Greenwich Street and the parallel streets on the other side of the school, Washington and West.
For the teachers who were not isolated in rooms with the remaining students, it was important to know what was going on. They tried to use the two TV sets on carts that teachers take from classroom to classroom; they couldn't get anything. Someone must have a radio -- no, actually not -- wait, yes, Blaney's radio in the wood shop, the one they used to play music while they worked.
The radio helped, and phone calls from family helped. But while the world kept abreast of every terrifying image, every bit of news, they knew little.
"We were right there," Blaney said, "but we were cut off from what was really happening."
Kashman and Blaney were the last to go. Because Manhattan was sealed off, Blaney couldn't go home, so he stayed with Kashman, on 19th Street.
The following morning, Blaney visited his wife at work. She's a nurse at the New York University Medical Center, directly above the city medical examiner's office. She too had spent the night in the city; there were blood donations to take, and bodies to begin identifying.
Afterward, Blaney went home and watched the news, and he stayed home until the school reopened on Tuesday, Sept. 18.
"I was real glad to be back, because it gave me something to do, and I could be with other people," he recalled. "It was one step toward normal life."
Most of the 311 children returned immediately, he said, and the rest trickled in soon. A few had lost their homes, and a French teacher whose husband worked at the World Trade Center had suffered a terrible scare. But not one life had been lost in the Village Community School family. "We were really lucky," Blaney said. "We were all accounted for."
Blaney said he tried to "get absorbed" in his lessons, and so did his colleagues. "It was confusing, because while you were here you kind of had to put your feelings on hold and work with the kids, and people had varying success with that."
The children, for their part, "seemed pretty good," Blaney said. They were excited to be back at school, and like the grownups, relieved by the distraction. Yet the impact of the attacks was unquestionable.
In the wood shop, Kashman and Blaney decided to skip the introductory lessons they usually give in the first few days and get straight to work.
They figured the children needed to "keep their hands and their minds occupied," so they brought out boxes of scrap wood for the students to start making simple sculptures.
Some of the projects were related to subjects they were studying in their regular classrooms -- transportation, Egypt, Japan -- but Kashman and Blaney also let them make some objects of their choosing.
One girl, Maggie, whose brother had witnessed the second plane crash, made a sculpture of the two towers, one partially fallen, with a plane pointing into it. Others made figures of the twin towers as they'd looked before being struck. Many added "I love New York" and patriotic themes to everyday shop projects -- tables, chairs.
In art classes, meanwhile, teachers were deluged with multicolored representations of the images that filled the children's minds. Unnerving as it all was, they let the students express themselves, and even hung up some of the pictures in the hallways for awhile. They came down weeks later.
More art from VCS students during the 2001 school year...
Over time, the tragedy's grip over everyone loosened a bit, and school returned, more or less, to normal. But all year, the school psychologist had her hands full with stressed and distraught youngsters.
"It was always there," Blaney said. "The kids, outwardly, were trying to be normal and do normal things, but underneath, it all came out. I would say it was there pretty strongly all year."
THUS THE need to move on this year, to make a fresh, more positive start.
In his eighth-grade home room, Blaney explained the importance of the crane project, and he talked with the students about how they should act as leaders, how "they're the ones who are going to set the example" for their schoolmates.
At the assembly on Wednesday, there were no guest firefighters and no twin towers images. Head of School Eve Kleger spoke in general terms, mentioning Sept. 11 only briefly, and focusing on the importance of remembering history and respecting the memory of those who aren't with us anymore.
Asked how the children are doing this year, Blaney said he thinks "they're doing better, but I don't think they're all the way there yet."
And how is he?
"There's still some unease. I don't think I'm ever not going to look up when I hear an airplane," he said. It's become a reflex for everyone, hasn't it? "I think over time it'll go further and further to the back of my mind."