Laura Bush speaks in Somerset

SOMERSET — In a speech that was by turns funny and serious, former first lady Laura Bush told students at a Christian school about her years in the White House, including the harrowing aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Bush was on her way to Capitol Hill to brief senators on early-childhood education when a Secret Service agent told her an airplane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers in New York.

She sat in U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy's office and watched television coverage of the towers collapsing. Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts who had seen much tragedy in his own life, made small talk, apparently to reassure her.

Bush recalled being reunited later that night with her husband, President George W. Bush, and their daughters in a bunker deep below the White House.

"We were safe. Our daughters were safe. But all we could think about were the thousands of Americans who couldn't say the same about their own loved ones, and about the duty that had suddenly fallen on George to lead the country through the dark shadow that had fallen over it," Bush said.

Later that night, back upstairs at the White House, an agent rushed into their bedroom and said another airplane was headed toward the White House.

She didn't have time to put in her contacts, so the president held her hand to help her back to the bunker, she said.

The report was a false alarm.

As President Bush responded to the attacks, she said, some saw him only as the "heedless cowboy caricature" of editorial cartoons and television comedy shows.

But she saw something different — the strain in his face from the decisions he had to make, and his tears after meeting with the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, she said.

Bush said the invective directed at her husband didn't get to her because she knew his character.

"America hangs on the proposition that what those of us in the White House sometimes perceive as a chorus of complaints, all that blathering and bloviating, is in reality a kind of sacred music, or at least, the clanking gears of democracy," she said.

Bush spoke to a crowd of about 700 people at Somerset Christian School, about half of them students.

The price for the public to attend the event, which raised money for the school, was $50.

There also was a private reception before the speech, where people could pay $750 to have a photo made with the former first lady.

Somerset businessman Ward Correll, who has been a key benefactor of the private school, helped arrange for Bush to come to Somerset and underwrote the event.

"I think the kids will remember that as long as they live," he said later.

Madyson Hutchinson, one of a group of honor students who got to meet privately with Bush, said hearing the former first lady was inspiring.

"It was incredible. She was so down-to-earth," said Hutchinson, a 16-year-old sophomore who said she wants to be president.

Local people were excited by the opportunity to hear the former first lady.

"I think it was fantastic," said Cloyd J. Bumgardner, a school administrator who chairs the Pulaski County Republican Party.

Bush championed education during her speech, telling students that self-discipline is one of the best traits they should try to develop, and encouraging them to volunteer and help other people.

She said she and the former president have stayed busy since leaving office, writing books, working on his presidential library and adjusting to life as private citizens without a large staff.

When you are married to the president, she said, you don't much worry about him picking up his wet towels in the White House.

"But in Dallas, things are different. Memo to the ex-president: Turmoil in East Timor is no longer an excuse not to pick up your socks," Bush said.