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Facing their Fears

Some kids saw it in real time, others watched it on television. Now they want to know what happened to the jumpers. Or whether another plane could crash through the window. How do we frame an answer? We want to make them feel safe -- but we also want to tell them the truth.

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Forty grown-ups are sitting with their knees squeezed against their chests, their adult frames tucked into elementary-school lunch tables. These are the moms and dads of some of the kids who fled P.S. 234 in TriBeCa on September 11. They're inside the cafeteria at P.S. 41 in the West Village on a brisk Wednesday morning. The lunch tables are arranged in a U, suggesting a big hug. At the open end of the hug, perched on a tiny chair, is Dr. Bruce Arnold, a psychologist.

At first, Arnold tries to steer the group into a discussion about the emotional pros and cons of returning to the cleaned-up TriBeCa building. The 650 displaced students have been squeezed into their substitute surroundings at P.S. 41 for more than two weeks now. But there are too many raw fears to channel the conversation for long. Questions come so fast, and from so many emotional angles, that it feels as if Arnold is defending a dissertation.

"My daughter . . . " a tall woman says tentatively. "The questions just suddenly pop out: 'Did those people who jumped land on a trampoline?' How do I answer that?"

There's a collective deep breath. A second mom interjects, "My son thinks they skateboarded down to safety."

My pen stops moving. Several days ago, my 5-year-old son, Jack, looked up from his breakfast bagel. We'd been talking about the slugs in our Brooklyn backyard when Jack asked why people jumped out of the World Trade Center, even though my wife, Lisa, and I had flipped the TV channel when there'd been any hint of those scenes, even though I'd immediately tossed out the newspapers with photos of jumpers. So now I'm paying attention to Arnold's answer -- as a reporter and a father.

"You don't want to be overly reassuring, especially if you have a daughter who's almost 12 and has a good b.s. detector."

"Right now it's not about facts," Arnold says. "Kids want to know if people can survive, if people can be okay when something bad happens. And we need to reinforce that. People did escape from the building. It is possible to be okay. Listen for the piece of the thing where they want to be reassured. If your child is really into skateboards, tell them that some people found a way to use a piece of the building to skate down to the ground. Or, sure, tell them they landed on a trampoline."

Trampolines? Skateboards? I don't want a 5-year-old thinking he can jump out a window any time he wants. I'd told Jack that those people were very, very scared because they were on fire and they thought jumping was the only way to get away from the flames. I asked him, "What happens if a person jumps out a window?" Jack chewed some bagel.

"You get hurt," he said. My heart resumed beating.

But now Arnold's advice has my doubts churning again: Had I reassured Jack enough?

Several dozen questions later, an energetic mother named Linda Lakhdhir raises her hand. "Our difficult time has always been when my son is going to sleep," she says. "Daniel is 9, and he'd occasionally ask if we were safe, if anything could happen to us. And I'd always tell him, 'Yes, we're protecting you.' "

Lakhdhir isn't naïve -- she was a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn -- but she's always been optimistic. "The only time I didn't feel sure I could say everything would be all right was that Tuesday night," she says. "The question went away for a while. Now Daniel is back to 'Can anything happen to us? Could this happen again?' I'm back to saying, 'No, we're fine, we're safe.' "

She pauses. Then she sums up the terror that's haunting parental minds. "But in my own heart," she says, "I know that's not true."

We all start with a disclaimer. We are lucky. Those of us who have not suffered a direct, tragic loss know that none of our problems comes close to the awful pain inflicted on the families of those who died or were injured at the World Trade Center. In his book Hiroshima, John Hersey describes how the Japanese who lived through the World War II atomic bombings were careful not to refer to themselves as "survivors," because its emphasis on being alive could slight the sacred dead. Instead, they called themselves hibakusha, which translates into the clinical-sounding "explosion-affected persons."

Affected we are. New York families are confronting disturbing, impossible questions over dinner. We want to take comfort in the resilience of children. And if the worst was over on September 11, the short-term perspective that's characteristic of childhood will help them bounce back fine. But we're nagged by an adult understanding of time, and the fear that the days ahead hold dark surprises.

Daily anthrax alerts raise the tension. "My husband and I are trying really hard not to show our stress in front of our sons, and I think I've been doing well at that," says Liz Willen, an education reporter at Bloomberg News whose 6-year-old, Damon, was evacuated from P.S. 150, on Greenwich Street, when the planes hit; Damon took refuge in the SoHo loft of his uncle, Murray Reich, and immediately began drawing pictures of the attack. "But on Friday," Willen says, "when I found out Damon was stuck at his school because the subways were shut down and the baby-sitter couldn't make it in from Brooklyn, I burst into tears in the middle of the office. I tried to think about the hundreds and hundreds of 6-year-olds and younger who've lost their parents in this. Damon is actually doing quite well, but I need to hold it together a little better."

Many agree their kids saw and heard too much in those first few chaotic days. Everyone wonders about the effects of those memories. Consulting America's slim history of terrorism provides little relief. "For the first few days in Oklahoma City, there was nothing on television except bombing-related stuff," says Ed Linenthal, a professor of religion and American culture, who wrote The Unfinished Bombing, a book analyzing the extended impact of Timothy McVeigh's 1995 attack. "Life was not normal, so lots of preschool kids were watching television by themselves," Linenthal says. "Kids in Oklahoma City were seeing images over and over and over again of the Murrah building. And each time they saw it on television, they thought it was a different, separate building that had been blown up." To this day, kids in Oklahoma City kick the sides of new buildings before they enter.

Parents are also reeling from a fundamental disorientation: Perhaps we've been preparing our kids for the wrong world. Back on September 10, the economy was stumbling, but that was surely temporary. There was still an ease to life, a psychic expansiveness, that for many people had little to do with money. A child's future seemed limited only by imagination or effort. The pervasive dangers of the early nineties, that your 13-year-old might be mugged coming home from school, had been tamed, if not eliminated. There were superheroes and villains, sure, but they lived only in X-Men cartoons. Good liberal parents fed their children the enlightened mantra that there's no such thing as bad people, only bad behavior. But evil -- the stark, Old Testament kind -- entered the house on September 11 and must be explained. Coping with fear now dwarfs all other parental worries.

"I had thought, up until now, that we lived in an idyllic time insulated from history," says Bill Grueskin, 48, the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Online and the father of three daughters who've lost their home. "Now it's clear that we don't and that it was silly to think that we did. I feel like we're in one of those great historical periods, sort of like in World War II, when you literally don't know how the world is going to end up a couple of years from now. You don't want to be overly reassuring, especially if, like us, you have a daughter who's almost 12 and has a pretty good b.s. detector. What we used to think of as adversity now seems very mundane and banal."

Three weeks into the new reality, I'm talking with my friend Phil, a father of four. He's also a high-ranking cop. Phil is no alarmist, but he's thinking seriously of moving out of Queens. "What if in six months, you're standing in your living room watching Jack on the couch bleed uncontrollably from both his ears because some terrorist has sprayed a germ on the city?" he says. "And you'd had it in your power to leave town -- wouldn't you hate yourself forever?"

Maybe my steps into Jack's bedroom were faster that night, but I was still a long way from fright. I'd spent days attending firefighters' wakes and hours devouring stories about Osama bin Laden, but all that was work, the sadness and uncertainty processed through a journalist's practiced distance. It's near midnight as I'm standing over Jack's bed. My beautiful boy is sleeping in his dinosaur pajamas, guarded by his cowboy-print curtains and his elephant pillows. And these are the words that flash into my brain: He wants to kill you.


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