There has rarely been a starker juxtaposition of evil and innocence than the moment President George W. Bush received the news about 9/11 while reading The Pet Goat with second-graders in Sarasota, Fla.
Seven-year-olds can't understand what Islamic terrorism is all about. But they know when an adult's face is telling them something is wrong and none of the students sitting in Sandra Kay Daniels' class at Emma E. Booker Elementary School that morning can forget the devastating change in Bush's expression when White House chief of staff Andrew Card whispered the terrible news of the al-Qaeda attack. Lazaro Dubrocq's heart started racing because he assumed they were all in trouble with no less than the Commander in Chief but he wasn't sure why. "In a heartbeat, he leaned back and he looked flabbergasted, shocked, horrified," recalls Dubrocq, now 17. "I was baffled. I mean, did we read something wrong? Was he mad or disappointed in us?"
Similar fears started running through Mariah Williams' head. "I don't remember the story we were reading was it about pigs?" says Williams, 16. "But I'll always remember watching his face turn red. He got really serious all of a sudden. But I was clueless. I was just 7. I'm just glad he didn't get up and leave, because then I would have been more scared and confused." Chantal Guerrero, 16, agrees. Even today, she's grateful that Bush regained his composure and stayed with the students until The Pet Goat was finished. "I think the President was trying to keep us from finding out," says Guerrero, "so we all wouldn't freak out."
Even if that didn't happen, it's apparent that the sharing of that terrifying Tuesday with Bush has affected those students in the decade since and, they say, it made the news of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's killing by U.S. commandos on May 1 all the more meaningful. Dubrocq, now a junior at Riverview High School in Sarasota, doubts that he would be a student in the rigorous international-baccalaureate program if he hadn't been with the President as one of history's most infamous global events unfolded. "Because of that," he says, "I came to realize as I grew up that the world is a much bigger place and that there are differing opinions about us out there, not all of them good."
Guerrero, today a junior at the Sarasota Military Academy, believes the experience "has since given us all a better understanding of the situation, sort of made us take it all more seriously. At that age, I couldn't understand how anyone could take innocent lives that way. And I still of course can't. But today I can problem-solve it all a lot better, maybe better than other kids because I was kind of part of it." Williams, also a junior at the military academy, says those moments spent with Bush conferred on the kids a sort of historical authority as they grew up. "Today, when we talk about 9/11 in class and you hear kids make mistakes about what happened with the President that day, I can tell them they're wrong," she says, "because I was there."
One thing the students would like to tell Bush's critics like liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, whose 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 911 disparaged Bush for lingering almost 10 minutes with the students after getting word that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center is that they think the President did the right thing. "I think he was trying to keep everybody calm, starting with us," says Guerrero. Dubrocq agrees: "I think he was trying to protect us." Booker Principal Gwendolyn Tose-Rigell, who died in 2007, later insisted, "I don't think anyone could have handled it better. What would it have served if [Bush] had jumped out of his chair and ran out of the room?"