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Schoolteacher gives meaning to modern history

By LISA BUIE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 2002


The girl in the rhinestone flag shirt summed up her classmates' feelings as she strolled into the classroom.

The girl in the rhinestone flag shirt summed up her classmates' feelings as she strolled into the classroom.

"Mr. Geier, are we going to have a good day?"

In a corner, the co-editor of the Wesley Chapel High School newspaper frets because he can't seem to find out who won Tuesday's primary elections amid all the tributes and flag waving.

"Sept. 11 coverage is really annoying today," Cody Jacobs laments to a table of friends.

No one notices the black cloth covering the board like a shroud.

Geier orders everyone to sit down and put everything away. Yes, that also means the latest issue of PawPrints that came out Wednesday.

He tells the students that a Web site shows about 3,000 lives were snuffed out in the terrorist attacks a year ago. Just what does 3,000 look like?

Without fanfare, Geier removes the push pins holding up the black cloth. Underneath shows a printout bearing the name of each person who died in the terrorist attacks. It takes up nearly the entire board.

On that list is Catherine Patricia Salter, 37, of New York City. She is more than just a name. She is the sister of Geier's best friend.

Authorities searching ground zero found only a singed purse and a few melted credit cards bearing her name.

Geier asks each of his classes if anyone else lost a loved one.

Amber Mayer's hand goes up. A cousin.

"It was so sad," she says, her voice breaking.

Jordan Lyles also has a connection. Her best friend's mother, Cecile M. Caguicla, 55, of Boonton, N.J., was killed. She goes to the list, finds the name and touches the type. It reminds her and her friend of the Vietnam War memorial.

"All of these people were going to work, going to school, going on vacation, coming back from vacation," Geier said. "They were doing what they do every day of the year."

If they take nothing else from Wednesday's lesson, Geier wants these teens not to lose sight of the lives lost. It's fine to wave the flag -- one hangs in his classroom -- but this is about people.

Geier realizes this generation has been dulled to scenes of violence by the oh-so realistic special effects of films and video games, so he wants to emphasize the gravity of the situation.

Aspiring journalists also need to know that they will have to cover these types of stories.

"Nothing can prepare you for this," Geier said. "'If this is the business you go into, you're going to hit those hard things, but those things can never prepare you for this. Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather broke down on TV from the emotional impact."

During each class, students talk about when they first heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the crash near Pittsburgh.

All can say which class they were in that day and name the teacher.

Sept. 11 is this generation's Kennedy assassination.

"People ask our parents where they were when JFK was shot," Lauren Sommer said. "It's sad to say we have a place we can say we were when (Sept. 11) happened."

A girl in a yearbook class wants to know how photographers can stand and take pictures as something so horrific unfolds.

Geier's answer: They're doing their jobs. Just like it's the yearbook staff's job to record a year of the school's history, photojournalists must record historic events, even the tragic ones.

Amid all the sad talk on this anniversary, there is a moment of joy.

Without thinking of the date, Geier had ordered a cake to celebrate September birthdays of his students. At first he worried a celebration would seem inappropriate, but it was too late to cancel the cake.

So he hatched a plan.

A records search turned up eight students whose birthdays fall on Sept. 11.

On Wednesday, he called those students out of their classes to his room. The four who are at school walked in looking puzzled.

"We wanted you to know it's okay to celebrate," Geier tells the four.

The rest of the class serenades the group with Happy Birthday. Geier gives them each a slice from a cake decorated with a figure of the Crocodile Hunter.

It was a good day after all.

-- Lisa Buie is the editor of the central/east edition of the Pasco Times. You can reach her at (813) 909-4604 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4604. Her e-mail address is buie@sptimes.com.

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