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Education Saved Her Life on 9/11

Archway Glendale June 5, 2024 -

As we commemorate the 22nd anniversary of the September 11 attacks, commonly known as 9/11, we remember the lives lost and the lasting effects it made on our country. If you were alive on September 11th, 2001, you most certainly can remember exactly where you were when the news came out that two hijacked commercial flights struck the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. But for some of us, the memories have become distant by time and space. But for others, the memories are still too close for comfort.

Suzanne DeStefano was driving to her new job as a kindergarten teacher in California when she heard the news on the radio. When she arrived at her school, she saw the horrifying images of the towers crumbling to the ground. She wiped away her tears and pulled herself together to prepare herself to greet her classroom full of five and six-year-olds. It is all in a day’s work for a teacher, but just two months prior, Suzanne was working in her office on the 99th floor of the World Trade Center.

DeStefano is originally from California and said that she always wanted to teach, but when she was offered a job to work for an international Fortune 500 company in San Francisco, she couldn’t pass it up. Within a year, the company relocated her to their offices in New York City in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. “I was a Trade Credit and Political Risk Consultant,” she said. “I had a little office with a window that looked out on the Statue of Liberty and a view of the whole city. It never got old to look out that window and see New York City in front of you from above the clouds that high up.” DeStefano says she lived the romanticized New York City life that every 20-something girl from the West Coast dreams of. She fondly remembers her 300 square-foot apartment, taking in Broadway shows, and exploring the Big Apple. She met her husband there, who worked in the South Tower. And he proposed to her at the Windows on the World Restaurant, a restaurant on the North Tower’s 106th and 107th floors.

She had lived in New York City for two years and was successful in the business world, but her heart was still in education. She began volunteering for two non-profit organizations – one where she helped teach adults who were illiterate to read, and the other where she helped beautify rundown schools in Harlem. “Even though that wasn’t teaching in the classroom, I enjoyed it so much. I loved it!” While still working for her company, she began substitute teaching while she worked on getting her master’s in education.

“July 11th, 2001, was my last day working in the Trade Center, and then I got married on August 11th, 2001.” It was exactly one month later that American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center between the 93rd and 99th floors. Hearing the news gave Suzanne an instant guttural reaction and she felt sick. “I remember thinking ‘I don’t even know where the stairs were.’ When you work on the 99th floor, you always take the elevator. Everybody that I worked with on that floor – my whole team, my secretary, my boss, and everybody that had offices around me perished that day.” Her husband’s cousin was in the New York Fire Department, and he also perished as one of the rescue workers that day.

“I used to say that teaching saved my soul. Working in the business world was not an uplifting experience for me and I just felt this deep vocational calling towards education. I was never happier when I made that move and then later after the attacks, I realized that, oh my goodness, teaching saved my life!” She has often been asked if she feels survivor’s guilt. “I don’t feel guilty, I just feel extremely grateful,” she said. “Over 20 years have passed, and you don’t forget, but it makes you appreciate life and the beautiful things that are still here that are around us, and that people are strong, and they continue on.”

Her husband still has family in Long Island, and she has been back once to the site where the Twin Towers once stood, but she admits that it is just too painful to be there. DeStefano and her family eventually moved to Arizona, where she began teaching for Archway Glendale. She now leads the school as Headmaster and has the same love and passion for education that she had over 20 years ago. She said she copes with the anniversary each year by attending church. “I can’t help but be reflective and mourn the people that I knew that lost their lives that day, many of which had families. But also, I am very thankful that, for whatever reason, I wasn’t there and have been given an opportunity to live and should use that wisely,” she said. “So, it’s a day of reflection for me and gratitude that I get to be here.” She said that it’s hard not to just walk around the school and give everyone a hug.

Let’s honor those that lost their lives on 9/11 by living in the same gratitude that Mrs. DeStefano personifies to her staff, students, and families at Archway Glendale every day.

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