On September 11, 2001, Jessica Jenkins was home, sleeping off the nightshift, when her parents woke her up with the news: The U.S. was under attack.
A plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York City, and then another. And then a plane crashed into the Pentagon building in Virginia — the building where Jenkins worked for the U.S. Air Force as a senior airmen and communications computer systems operator.
From her front porch in Virginia, Jenkins, who was 25-years-old at the time, took a photo of the smoke plume coming from the Pentagon.
“Shortly after that, I got the message that I had to report for duty,” Jenkins said. “I had to go into the Pentagon and pick up some coworkers, and we went to the alternate Pentagon location in the Pennsylvania mountains. Because they weren’t sure, was the Pentagon still under attack?”
This week marks 22 years since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, forever altering the course of U.S. history. Jenkins knows: now, she teaches AP U.S. History at Oviedo High School.
In total, nearly 3,000 people died in separate attacks after four airplanes were hijacked on 9/11. Two crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, another plane crashed into the Pentagon, killing 64 passengers and 125 people in the Pentagon, and the final plane was brought down when its passengers overcame the hijackers, crashing into the Pennsylvania countryside.
She talks about her own personal experiences from that day in the classroom. She said most people are familiar with the eerie photos of New York City after the attacks. The trip to the Pentagon was similarly strange.
She remembers stepping out of her car in uniform, while everyone else did the same. Traffic was stopped completely, and people were leaving the metro stations because the trains weren’t running.
“And being like, ‘Hey, I’m in uniform, I need to get to the Pentagon,’ but nobody really cared,” Jenkins said. “Everybody was freaking out. It was this moment where you don’t understand the gravity until you have the time to look back on it.”
She ultimately had to park her car and walk to the Pentagon, borrow a cell phone to call her coworkers, and then head for the Pennsylvania mountains. Jenkins worked in communications — basically secure email before secure email was widely available.
She worked at the Raven Rock Mountain Complex in the Pennsylvania mountains for several days, the same protected complex where Vice President Dick Cheney worked to be separate from President George Bush. She checked in with her husband, who was also in the Air Force. He was deployed to ground zero to do communications work for the president’s upcoming visit.
She talks about her own history in class, and her experiences during 9/11.
“For me, 9/11 was a turning point,” Jenkins said. “I had a little survivor’s guilt. A little ‘What’s my purpose, why am I still here?’ Not that being in the military wasn’t important. But I just needed to have a more direct impact. I think second to parenting, teachers are the most important impact on society.”
Florida law now requires September 11 to be a required subject in civics and government classes. The generation in high school now grew up with 9/11 as something that happened to their parents.
Kayla Michalkovich is a psychology major at Seminole State College. She had Jenkins for speech and American History, and was a teaching assistant for AP U.S. History.
She said Jenkins would connect students to history by asking what their parents were doing on 9/11. She said the video she plays — the The Man in the Red Bandana — also stuck with her.
Michalkovich messaged her former teacher a year after the class to tell her she was thinking about her on 9/11.
“We weren’t alive on 9/11,” Michalkovich said. “She talks about her personal experience, which is nice. After that, they give her a lot more respect. Kids change around her.”
Jenkins was recently recognized as the Veteran of the Month for Seminole County Public Schools. Oviedo High School Principal Dr. Trent Daniel introduced her to the board.
“Thank you for being a great friend, and thank you for teaching at Oviedo High School and making a difference in all of our lives. We love you,” Daniel said.
Jenkins likes to share a Ken Burns quote with her class at the beginning of the semester: “The word ‘history’ which for many people is a dull and boring word, is mostly made up of the word ‘story.’”
“How do you make it personal, right?” she asks. “We all have stories, turning points, significant events. I talk about my parents’ divorce, I talk about joining the Air Force, I talk about 9/11.”
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