“I’m just glad he didn’t get up and leave because then I would have been more scared and confused.” That’s what 16-year-old Mariah Williams had to say about George W. Bush’s oft criticized decision to continue reading The Pet Goat to Sandra Kay Daniels’ class of 2nd graders at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, FL on 9/11. Chantal Guerrero, 16, agrees with her classmate, according to TIME. “I think the President was trying to keep us from finding out,” Guerrero told them, “so we all wouldn’t freak out.”
In light of Osama bin Laden’s death, TIME interviewed three students that were with the former President that fateful day almost a decade ago. Now juniors in high school, all three are attending the Sarasota Military Academy, and they’re convinced it’s because they were in the presence of the Commander-in-Chief on the day he faced the biggest challenge of his career.
17-year-old Lazaro Dubrocq says he doubts he’d be in the rigorous international baccalaureate program at SMA if he hadn’t been so intimately touched by the events of September 11th, 2001. “I came to realize as I grew up that the world is a much bigger place, and that there are differing opinions about us out there, not all of them good,” he said. “At that age I couldn’t understand how anyone could take innocent lives that way. And I still of course can’t. But today I can problem-solve it all a lot better, maybe better than other kids because I was kind of part of it.”
President Bush famously finished reading The Pet Goat before leaving to discuss the dire situation with advisers in the school’s library. After his exit, Ms. Daniels brought in and turned on a television, showing her class news coverage of the flaming towers. “It was pretty scary,” says Williams, “and I remember thinking, So that’s why the President looked so mad.”
Despite their military education, all three students plan to lead civilian lives. Dubrocq hopes to study international business and master several languages, Williams wants to be a veterinarian and Guerrero – whose name means “warrior” – dreams of being a Broadway star. (A girl after my own heart.)
Even though this triumvirate of young minds would rather lead cushier lives than the armed services can provide, they’re all in awe of the elite Navy SEALs who brought bin Laden to his end. Williams says, “I was shocked. I thought after 10 years, they’d never find him. But what the SEALs did, it, like, gives me even more respect for that kind of training.” Mostly, though, according to TIME, bin Laden’s death “brought back a flood of memories of their tragic morning with a President — memories that prove kids can carry a lot heavier stuff in those plastic backpacks than adults often realize.”