Teacher turns 9/11 into a lesson of gratitude

5:26 PM, Sep 10, 2010   |    comments
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Tampa, Florida -- For one Bay area teacher, the memory of 9/11 is all too clear and all too painful. Nine years later, 29-year-old Andrew Schwartz turns his experience into a lesson for his students.  He passes around an index card-sized piece of steel from the World Trade Center.

"Goodness this is heavy," says student Samantha Aubin.

Schwartz's 4th graders were just babies on 9/11, some not even born yet.

One student asks why the planes crashed into the towers.

"They felt, by doing that, they'd scare us, cause us to change the way we live our life every day. It had the opposite affect. It made us stronger. It made people come out to help that would not help before. It brought us together as a nation," Andrew explains to his students.

"I say I aged 20, 25 years overnight," recalls Andrew.

On 9/11, Andrew, just 20 years old and away at college, learned his dad, Mark, an EMT and first responder, died when the Twin Towers collapsed. At first, the family thought he'd show up.

"All I remember is phone call after phone call. I remember people showing up at the house and going to the hospitals, calling hospitals. Hoping every time the cell phone rang or home phone rang, every time hoping it is him on the other line. It never was," recalls Andrew.

Two days after 9/11, the family got word that 50-year-old Mark Schwartz's body had turned up. "He loved to help people," Andrew says about his dad.

At 18, Andrew followed in his father's footsteps and became an EMT. Shortly after his dad's death, Andrew fulfilled his father's dream of becoming a paramedic. As a symbol of that accomplishment, the state of New York assigned Andrew his father's ID number.

In 2003, Andrew relocateed to Tampa and continues to serve, this time as a teacher at Shore Magnet Elementary.  Each 9/11 anniversary he tells his father's story.

"They never come away frightened or sad. They realize they should never take anything for granted. Most importantly, if you don't agree with what someone else is doing, it does not give you the right to lash out," says Andrew.

The 4th grade teacher organized an assembly for his school. Representatives from the police department and fire department were invited. Students write letters of gratitude for their service.

"Dear volunteers and community helpers, thank you for all you do for our community," writes Samantha.

Andrew uses 9/11 to teach students to respect other opinions.

"You don't fly a plane into a building or drive a car into a building. You have to work it out," says Samantha.

Mark's father, a 9/11 hero, taught Andrew time is precious. "You don't know what the next hour, what the next day, is going to bring. Get done what you want to get done as soon as you can. Cherish every minute."

But Andrew admits it's difficult to forgive the people who flew the planes into the Twin Towers and placed his father there that day. Andrew says, "They took my dad away. They disrupted my life, in a way. I feel like I lost two parents. My mom, in many ways, hasn't been the same. I think it will be a part of me. I can never forgive because it changed my life in so many ways."

Andrew says he's opposed to a Gainesville pastor's former plans to burn the Quran.

"No, I don't agree. It's like someone burning a book from my religion or someone else's religion," says Andrew.

He's also opposed to building a mosque near ground zero. "I personally think they should build it somewhere else," he says.

He adds that mosque organizers could have handled it better and asked 9/11 victims how they feel about a mosque going up so near to ground zero. He says maybe then all the backlash could have been avoided.

Isabel Mascarenas

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