By Julie Rine, Minerva Local Education Association
The day is etched in the memory of anyone who is old enough to remember it. We remember the room we were in when we heard about the attacks, the facial expression of the person who told us, the tenor of the voice who broke the news. We remember the point at which we stopped doing regular activities and started incessantly watching news coverage. We remember a feeling of exhaustion at the end of that day, a sense of having survived a horrible day, a piercing ache for those who did not.
When it happened, I was making copies. It was 2nd period. Our principal came over the scratchy intercom system and told us a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center Towers. I’m not sure what compelled my principal to interrupt classes to make that announcement. We live in Ohio, far from NYC, and of course at that time, we thought it was simply a tragic accident. But then the second plane flew into the South Tower, and our blissful ignorance was shattered.
In spite of that, I tried to keep my lesson plans “on track”, something very important to me as a young teacher, so my 3rd period kids took notes just as 1st period had. Our classroom television, an old black and white Channel One set, was turned on, but the volume was down. Once the Pentagon was hit, the note-taking stopped. I turned up the volume, and we watched together as papers and people fell to the ground in New York City, as the Pentagon burned, and as reporters covered the crash of Flight 93 (we later learned it had flown right over our little town). I remember looking away from my students to hide my tears. Outside my window was the most cerulean blue sky I had ever seen. To this day, I have never again seen that particular shade of blue that haunts my memory.
After the initial shock and horror, Americans came together in a spirit of unity. We weren’t Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives. We didn’t debate public schools vs. charter schools, gun control vs. the 2nd Amendment, or pro-choice vs. pro-life. We didn’t argue about e-mails or walls. We were passionate and patriotic Americans, and we wanted the same things: to feel safe, to honor the victims, to support the first responders, to hold our children close to us, and to provide for them a future free of terror.
It’s not difficult to teach about September 11th in English. I’ve taught purpose, tone, and occasion by comparing Toby Keith’s vengeful Brought to You Courtesy of Red, White and Blue to Alan Jackson’s somber Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning. It’s always a powerful discussion: two songs written about the same event, both in the immediate days following the attacks; yet each illustrates a very different approach to the tragedy. My classes have analyzed newspapers’ decisions to print Richard Drew’s iconic “Falling Man” photo, and we’ve pondered the media and its role and responsibility in impacting how we view an event. After watching a few short TED talks and news clips, we have considered the decision-making process the National September 11 Memorial & Museum undertook as its curators determined whether or not to include the voicemail messages left by victims to their families, the story of the jumpers, and photos of the terrorists who carried out the attacks. We’ve read poems, personal narratives, and political speeches.
So the events of September 11th can easily be used to teach many common core standards, at least at the high school level.
But that’s not why I teach it. For the freshmen who were in my class that day, I am a part of their memories of September 11th, as they are of mine. But the freshmen who are in my classes today have no memory of 9/11; they were not even born yet.
Today’s students can’t conjure up an image of that crystal clear cobalt sky. They don’t instinctively get quiet and mournful when they see photographs of the flames bursting from the buildings’ windows or the billowing cloud of dust chasing runners down the streets of New York City. They don’t feel their hearts wrench at the sight of the artifacts in the Memorial Museum: a slipper from an American Airlines plane, a shelf of dust-covered t-shirts from a store, half of a fire truck, a bicycle stand with twisted half-melted metal and tires.
We can’t teach our students to feel what we feel when we remember that day, but we can teach them about the beauty of the flags flying on nearly every house for weeks afterward.
We can tell them about the lines people stood in to donate blood. We can speak to them about the pies New Yorkers baked for the rescue and recovery workers. For a brief moment on a September Tuesday in 2001, evil got the upper hand over good, but it didn’t last long. Heroism, kindness, compassion, sacrifice, and love rushed in to push the evil out.
Our students may not remember that, but we can teach them to continue that. We can encourage them to honor the lives lost to evil by putting a little good back into the world on every September 11th. My students get homework on that day. They have to change the world by engaging in an act of kindness: washing a neighbor’s car, baking cookies for nurses at the local nursing home, weeding the flower beds at the senior center, cooking dinner for their family, complimenting a stranger, etc.
To us, it really did seem like the world stopped turning on September 11th, 2001. But eventually it started turning again, largely due to the altruism and graciousness that united Americans in the days following the tragedy. Steve Rosenbaum, who documented the process of building the National September 11 Museum, noted in a TED talk that “9/11 happened. We can’t take that back. But what we collectively do with that, is up to us.” In 2016, we might find ourselves at odds with each other in many ways, but on this one day, we need to teach our children not only about the event that shocked the world, but about the aftermath that united a nation. Maybe they can teach us how to unite it again.