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Former teacher remembers horror, teaching moments of Sept. 11 attacks

Sept 11 Anniversary
Posted at 9:30 PM, Sep 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-11 00:30:34-04

Sept. 11, 2001, was a difficult day for the entire country -- but imagine having a classroom full of kids and having to make sense of it all.

That was the reality for Rhonda Campbell from Peoria. At the time, she was a special education teacher at a high school in New Jersey, a 30- to 40-minute commute from Manhattan.

For Campbell, it was more than just a job; teaching was her ultimate passion.

"It's amazing," she explained. "You go home and you just feel so good."

So good in fact, she spent more than 25 years in the classroom as a special education teacher. For this Queens native, no lesson plan was too difficult.

"I did what I had to do. You react in real-time and do what you need to do."

Perhaps the biggest, most unexpected lesson of all came on 9/11.

"I shake when I think about the visions I saw on television."

With the TV turned on, Mrs. Campbell's students, in Room 115, watched in horror as the world changed before their eyes.

"We saw the other plane crash and that's when we were literally in shock."

With a classroom full of high schoolers, some with parents who were working in New York City that morning, Campbell did what she did best - she switched right into teacher mode.

"You try to calm everybody down at the same time, it was kind of a horrific situation. It was very hard to explain when I didn't know what was going on."

Campbell explains she was worried her own school would be a target.

"You just didn't know anything," she explains.

Calm on the outside, Campbell couldn't stop thinking about her mom and sister, still back in Queens.

Hours later, she would learn they were safe, but for the families of the nearly 3,000 people killed that day, nothing would ever be the same.

Even from their school in Linden, New Jersey -- 20 miles away -- Campbell says the signs of the tragedy were unavoidable.

"We saw the smoke. For days, you saw the smoke and the soot."

As the dust settled at Ground Zero and the years went by, Campbell didn't want any of her students to forget, so she'd make her class watch a documentary she had recorded from a local TV station in 2001.

"They would wonder why I was showing it, and I would tell them they are too young to understand it when it happened, but I wanted them to understand how we felt."

That feeling never leaving Campbell, even 20 years later.

"It's still current for me. I don't want to dull that pain. I want to know what I felt like that day. Again, It's something you don't want to forget."