None of the seventh graders in Nan Kaestner’s theater arts class at Gerstell Academy could tell you where they were on September 11, 2001.
They were not even born yet.
But as the terrorist attacks that occurred at the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, shook the nation, everyone in the country had their own story to share.
Through Kaestner’s brother-in-law, her students were able to experience one of those stories firsthand.
“One of the things you learn as a diplomat is to deal with disasters and crises,” says Peter Kaestner to a room full of students at the school on Monday, Oct. 4. “And one of the most important things when things start going wrong is good communication.”
Peter spent 36 years as a U.S. diplomat. When his return flight from Germany to Atlanta was grounded in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada on that fateful day, he was able to call upon what he’d learned.
Students will be watching—and performing some scenes—from “Come From Away,” a musical based on the account of the approximately 200 passengers on his flight.
Nan Kaestner thought hearing from her brother-in-law would help bring those stories to life.
When his plane—along with nearly 40 others—was grounded on the large airfield, Peter knew something was wrong. Word had gotten around his plane about the terrorist attack, and passengers were becoming anxious.
It was his training as a diplomat to always step up during a crisis that led him to approach the cockpit.
“I said, ‘Well, I can’t tell you to go out, but what you need to do is you need to put on your jacket. You need to put on your hat, and you need to walk up and down the airplane and just tell people that it’s gonna be OK,’” he recalls telling the pilots.
They took his advice and were able to calm everyone down.
It’s that type of leadership that falls in line with the attributes and principles of Gerstell Academy.
“Having Mr. Kaestner here really drives those lessons home,” says Carey Wargo, head of the middle school. Any time the school can share a firsthand account with students, “it brings relevance to what we’re teaching and impacts students on a greater level,” she adds.
The seventh graders were able to recognize principles such as “be courageous in the face of adversity” and attributes such as “perseverance” and “action” in his account.
Peter says he hoped another big takeaway from his experience for students would be how to treat other people with kindness, cooperation and mutual respect.
After 24 hours in the plane and a few meals of warm sodas and candy, the group boarded school buses to Lewisporte—about an hour from Gander. The hospitality they received from the town of about 1,500 people still makes him emotional to this day.
“Twenty years later, I can’t talk about it without tearing up,” Peter says. “It has profoundly affected me in so many ways.”
St. Matthew’s United Church, in Lewisporte, put up about half of the passengers—with blankets on the pews, mattresses and lounge chairs—for three days. Some older passengers, and those with medical needs, were offered homes in the area. And volunteers arrived at the church each day to cook three meals.
In such a time a tragedy, “there was this beautiful humanity going on over there,” says Nan.
“We talked about if that happened here, Gerstell definitely would have been a place where people would have come,” she adds. Finksburg or nearby Westminster would have brought food, she says.
Peter says the musical “Come From Away” definitely captured the spirit of his stay.
“We were not singing and dancing,” he jokes, but he says the kindness and emotion from that time certainly came across.
That kindness was reciprocal, too.
Another passenger, Shirley Brooks-Jones, collected $15,000 for a Newfoundland scholarship fund on the flight home. Today, the fund has about $1.5 million and has helped 341 students receive an advanced education, Peter says.
He says he hopes students realize that kindness can go a long way.
“Our country is so divided now, and if people were kinder and thought of others more, I think that we would maybe be a little less divided,” he says.