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Children in a changed world pause to reflect

Students of all ages absorb patriotic, uplifting and reverent messages about a day that threatened everyone's innocence.

By PAULETTE LASH RITCHIE and BARBARA BEHRENDT
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 12, 2002


The solemn ceremony at Inverness Primary School began with a moment of silence. Seven hundred children were completely quiet. The only noise was the cry of a visitor's baby.

Guests had filled the school cafeteria for the American Heroes Remembrance Day Program. Local heroes were the focus.

"We need to remember and keep it reverent, but focus on the heroism," said first-grade teacher Sandy Cross.

The stirring program included the Pledge of Allegiance and The Star-Spangled Banner as well as taps, which was played by local musician and teacher Lionel King.

The ceremony was one of many Wednesday at Citrus County schools. Students of all ages gathered to mark the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

At Inverness Primary, some students stood before the audience and shared their thoughts about heroes and the significance of the anniversary.

Fifth-grader Bobby Diestler declared Sept. 11 a terrible day. Fourth-grader Carolyn Cooper said, "Students and helpers like you and me are heroes."

She said working hard on the FCAT, helping neighbors and calling 911 during emergencies are all heroic acts.

Fifth-grader Amanda Budd praised workers such as firefighters, police officers, paramedics, government officials and veterans.

"Veterans of the armed forces have fought for freedoms for all Americans," she said.

At Inverness Middle School, students heard from motivational speaker Patrick T. Grady. A resident of Wahoo, in Sumter County, Grady returned to the middle school he attended to talk about attitude and doing the best one can do.

He began by recognizing the teachers who taught him at Inverness Middle. Then he told stories of heroes who overcame enormous disabilities to achieve success. One man set a world record for the longest time to complete the New York Marathon. The man, who lost his legs in Vietnam, completed the race on his hands.

His other example of determination was Wilma Rudolph, the Olympic gold medal winner who had been told as a child she would never run and play with her friends. She walked with a limp but ran like the wind.

Attitude, he said, is contagious. If you are courteous and respectful, you'll get that in return. He illustrated that with a story about a teenager who was supposed to sing the national anthem in front of 1,000 children she didn't know. She froze four times, forgetting the words. The audience didn't laugh; it encouraged her to keep trying and finally joined her.

"A year ago," Grady said, "the U.S. was attacked. But the U.S.A. stood up and joined together."

That spirit of unity was evident at an afternoon rally at Lecanto Primary School. The safety patrol paraded with flags and a banner that said: "In honor of the victims, their families, and the survivors of the 9/11 tragedy."

The Lecanto Middle School band played The Star-Spangled Banner, and Lecanto Primary students read essays about their personal heroes. The afternoon was filled with music, essays and speakers.

Citrus County sheriff's Lt. Joe Eckstein made a special presentation to second-grader Stephanie Tompkins. She wanted to hang a flag on her bedroom wall. Her mother had run into Sgt. Jim McIntyre at a convenience store one day and found out how she could get members of the Sheriff's Office to sign her daughter's flag.

Eckstein presented her the flag, which contained more than 50 signatures. The little girl shook his hand, took her flag and walked away.

At Crystal River High School, principal Stephen Myers followed through with plans to bolster the spirits of his senior students by cooking an all-American meal, including burgers off the grill.

Even the school district's food service workers chipped in, with red and white food and some blue icing and sprinkles around school cafeterias on Wednesday.

Students at Crystal River Middle School heard firsthand details of the recovery work at ground zero from Angel Vincent, a sheriff's employee who spent a week there in April as a victim advocate.

"My trip to ground zero was the chance of a lifetime, and it's something I'll never forget," she told sixth-graders Wednesday afternoon.

Using photos and props she brought from New York, Vincent explained the painstaking recovery efforts by firefighters and law enforcement officers.

She showed pictures of where the workers ate and slept and described the duty of walking around the pit in steel-toed shoes and hard hats.

"On any given day you could hear the glass falling," she said. "In that pit, there was still smoke six months later."

And there were images that constantly reminded workers that many lives had suddenly gone from normalcy to terror. One photo showed what remained of office furniture after the collapse.

"It's very tough to see," Vincent said.

Her final message to students: Try to make a difference in others' lives.

Younger children at Crystal River Primary School worked on writing assignments about freedom; one group worked at rewording the Pledge of Allegiance using simpler words.

"It was a cute exercise," said principal Sandra Kennedy.

She was careful to keep TVs off in classrooms.

"We didn't want teachers focusing on the tragic events of a year ago today. Instead, we were putting the focus on positive things which have happened since that time," she said. "They don't fully understand, and we don't either."

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