'The Gander Project': How a musical led these Texas students to write letters to N.L.

For junior high students learning English in Texas, the story of Gander's 9/11 response truly resonates.

Students learning English in Texas see themselves as the 'plane people' in Gander's 9/11 response

After learning about Gander's response to 9/11, Leen Zayed and Maria Arenas wrote letters to the town in Madison Hughes' English to Speakers of Other Languages class. (Kirby Clarke)

When eighth grader Leen Zayed learned how the people in the central Newfoundland town of Gander welcomed thousands of stranded air passengers during 9/11, she thought it was a bit of a "weird thing" at first.

"They didn't know them or they [weren't] like their cousin or anything. And they just acted like their friends and their family, and they helped them as much as they could," Zayed said. "It was just a very surprising and amazing thing that they did."

Originally from Jordan, Zayed learned about Gander's 9/11 response in her English to Speakers of Other Languages class in Katy, Tex.

Zayed's teacher, Madison Hughes, was inspired to teach the topic after seeing a performance of the Broadway musical Come From Away, whose creators wrote songs based on the experiences of stranded passengers and the Newfoundlanders who looked after them in the wake of terror attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001. Thirty-eight jets were diverted to Gander when U.S. airspace quickly closed that day. 

Fellow Texas teacher Megan Croes said Hughes has always been a huge Broadway fan.

"For the longest time, I gave her a very hard time about this," said Croes.

But once Hughes convinced Croes to give the musical a try, Croes got hooked on all things Come From Away. And now, for the third year in a row, the pair are teaming up to highlight how Gander fed, housed and trusted thousands of strangers following 9/11 for their junior high classrooms in Texas.

Between themselves, they call it "The Gander Project."

Students from all over the world learn English in Hughes's class. With nine different countries represented this year—including students from Venezuela, Colombia, Finland and China—Hughes has called her class a "mini-Gander." Croes, on the other hand, mainly teaches students originally from Mexico.

Texas junior high teachers Megan Croes and Madison Hughes teach 'the Gander Project' to their classes of new English learners. (Kirby Clarke)

When the teachers begin teaching "The Gander Project," they start by introducing 9/11 as a history lesson, in and of itself, before continuing onto Gander's response. In the end, their students are asked to write a personal letter to the people of Gander.

Hughes said that because many of her students weren't born in the United States, they often relate to the "plane people" who suddenly found themselves grounded in Gander's International Airport. 

"A lot of my kids remember that first day on American soil when they, too, were dropped in a place where they couldn't speak the language. They didn't know what people were saying to them. They know that feeling," Hughes said.

"And so they really pour their hearts out with these letters because it's almost like the kids were there. And they know how it feels to be welcomed by someone, to be seen by someone."

A student in Texas holds his letter for the people of Gander. (Kirby Clarke)

In her letter from last year, Zayed said she "tried to say thank you in the most meaningful way that I could," using the English vocabulary she had at the time.

"I hope that nobody forgets about this story, no matter how old it gets," Zayed wrote in her letter for Gander.

Eighth grader Maria Arenas, who originally moved to Texas from Colombia, also wrote a letter in Hughes's class.

"What I can relate to in this beautiful story is that I know how the airplane people felt, because I was once [someone] who didn't understand any word of English," reads Arenas' letter.

Teaching the universal language of kindness

When teaching "The Gander Project," Hughes and Croes say that above all else, they hope their students pick up on the kindness revealed during those five days in Gander and other NL communities. And with about 95 languages in circulation among the plane passengers, the teachers also focus on how that kindness transcended significant language barriers.

"[The people of Gander] were able to show these people through actions and through gestures and words that you know, you're welcome here, you're safe here," Hughes said. "And so when these kids hear this story, they realize that kindness is not just words in a certain language. It's helping anyone."

In past years, Croes said her students even started being more compassionate with each other after learning about Gander.

"It really changed the dynamic of my classroom culture," Croes said. "I mean, suddenly my students are quoting, you know, 'Well, what would the people of Gander do?' if maybe somebody wasn't being the kindest kid in class."

With students from nine different countries in her English to Speakers of Other Languages class, teacher Madison Hughes calls her class a "mini-Gander." (Kirby Clarke)

These days, what started as a simple classroom activity for Hughes and Croes has snowballed far beyond what the teachers imagined. In pre-Covid times, the executive producers of Come From Away invited their students to see a performance in Houston. Captain Beverley Bass and former Gander Mayor Claude Elliott—now famous as characters in Come From Away—paid Hughes' classroom a visit. Journalists and documentarians have all swept in to chronicle "The Gander Project," too.

But ultimately, both teachers said it's the students themselves who are driving the project.

"They're so engaged," said Hughes.

"When we're sending the letters, you know, they just scream in excitement—'Oh my gosh, it's time!'" said Hughes. "They really take this project on themselves, and they are so proud—so excited—to be a part of it."

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Andrea McGuire is a journalist working with CBC in St. John's.

With files from Anthony Germain and Kirby Clarke

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