They remember going over an eight-paragraph story so it would be perfect when they read it to the president on Sept. 11, 2001. They remember how Bush’s face suddenly clouded as his chief of staff, Andrew Card, bent down and whispered to him that the U.S. had been attacked. They remember how the president pressed on with the reading as best he could before sharing the devastating news with the nation.
“It was like a blank stare. Like he knew something was going on but he didn’t want to make it too bad for us to notice by looking different,” said Lenard Rivers, now a 17-year-old football player at Sarasota High.
What the students can’t say for sure is how that moment changed them. They were just second-graders. Their memories were only beginning.
“I think we all matured maybe a little bit,” said Chantal Guerrero, now a 17-year-old senior at Sarasota Military Academy. “… But since we were only 7, I’m not sure what kind of impact it had, because we didn’t know how things were before.”
Lazaro Dubrocq, now a 17-year-old senior and captain of the wrestling team at Sarasota’s Riverview High School, said it wouldn’t be until middle school when he started seriously pondering his place in the chaotic events of Sept. 11.
“I was too young and naive to fully understand the gravity of the situation,” said Dubrocq, who is headed to Columbia University to study chemical engineering next year. “As I began to age and mature, it helped me gain a new perspective of the world, and it helped me mature faster as I began to understand that there are politics and wars and genocides that occur daily throughout the world. It helped me come to a realization that the world is not a perfect place.”
Sept. 11, 2001, was a steamy Tuesday in southwest Florida. The children were sitting in two neat rows in Room 301 of Emma E. Booker Elementary School. Bush planned to sit in the classroom before moving to the media center to talk about a national reading initiative.
Booker Elementary, in a low-income area of Sarasota, was chosen for the visit because Principal Gwen Tosé-Rigell had turned it into a high-performing school. As presidential trips go, it was routine. The children were chosen because they were some of the best readers.
Tosé-Rigell, who died of cancer in 2007, told The Associated Press in 2002 that Bush knew when he arrived that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. But the news was sketchy, and the decision was made to proceed with the program at Booker.
The moment when Card whispered to the president about the terrorist attack came when the children were reaching under their desks for a book called Reading Mastery II. On Page 153 was The Pet Goat, the story the children read aloud as the president followed along with his own copy.
As they began the story, some of the children sensed something was different about the president.
Teacher Kay Daniels was sitting next to Bush and knew something was amiss when Card came out of the adjoining classroom and approached the president. Everything about the day was so choreographed, and that wasn’t supposed to happen.
“I had 16 little ones sitting in front of me, the media in the back of the classroom, and I had to keep going,” said Daniels, now a reading teacher at a Sarasota middle school.
“Emotionally, (Bush) left us, but he came back. He did come back into the lesson, and he picked up the book and for a moment he stayed with us.”
Bush dissected those moments recently in an interview with the National Geographic TV channel.
“At the back of the room, reporters were on their cell phones. They were getting the same message I got, which meant a lot of people would be watching my reaction to this crisis,” Bush said. “So I made a decision not to jump up immediately and leave the classroom. I didn’t want to rattle the kids. I wanted to project a sense of calm.”
After the story, Bush quickly shook hands with the children and left each with some M&Ms in a box bearing the presidential seal. Then he disappeared into the adjoining classroom, which had been set up as a command center for the visit. Minutes later in the media center, he stepped up to the podium and told the country about the attacks.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a difficult moment for America,” Bush began. Teachers and students standing closest to him could see tears well in his eyes.