I was a freshman in high school, two days shy of fourteen years old, on 9/11/2001. It was probably the scariest day of my life so far and the memories of the fear and sadness I felt are permanently embedded in my heart, mind, and soul.
As a teacher for the past three years I had the great privilege and responsibility to teach my students about September 11th each year. I looked forward to being able to share such a weighty historical moment with them. In my head, I was back in high school with my band teacher, bonding over tragedy, and I thought maybe I would have a similar moment with my students. I quickly realized, though, that this would not be the case.
A few days before September 11th of my first year teaching I asked, “How old were you guys on 9/11?”
They thought for a moment and replied, “Second grade.”
Second grade. Only seven or eight years old. How many headline-news-events do you remember from that age? This would not be the lesson I played out in my head.
I began class on September 11th with a simple question, “What do you remember from 9/11/2001?”
Students recalled being in class and their teachers turning on the televisions (in some schools) and watching, but being a little confused, as events unfolded. Students who lived closer to the attacks or who had family affected had stronger memories, but for most students in the small Florida town where I taught, 9/11 was an event that stuck in their minds, but they didn’t really understand it. After all, they were so young when it happened and their teachers and parents tried to shelter and protect them from the evil truth – that we were a terrorized nation. Later, I showed these students videos to give them a better idea of what actually happened that day, since that was what they wanted to know most, and then we learned about the memorials and new buildings being constructed to remember the attacks. The students then designed their own memorials and I think they felt a bit more connected to the history.
The second year, my students were even further removed from the events – they had only been in first grade. They were aware that bad things were happening on 9/11, but were even more sheltered than my students the year before. I felt like they were familiar with all the usual footage, so we watched a great documentary about a handful of the artifacts that have been donated to the Smithsonian and the people and stories behind them- a cell phone, part of a plane, a badge, and so on. I asked them, “If you could pick one object from your life on 9/11/2001 to tell your story from that day, what would it be?” Many of them mentioned the television, or an object from their classroom, or a comforting blanket or stuffed animal. Again, I think they felt more connected to history after this activity. I kept thinking, “They were so young. So innocent on that day.” My students wanted to hear my story, so I told them that I chose my clarinet, because I was in marching band class when I really learned what was going on. I stifled tears, and maybe I had that bonding moment I was hoping for.
Last year I was almost despairing over what my lesson would be. Those students were only in kindergarten on 9/11. For the third year in a row I asked, “What do you remember?” Almost nothing. I noticed that the younger the students were, the more their memories revolved around the adults in their lives and how the grown-ups acted. They mostly remember getting to go home early from school.
Over three years, responses evolved from, “I watched the news and I was scared because the planes were crashing and the buildings were falling,” to “I was scared but I didn’t really know why,” and finally, “I saw that the grown-ups were scared and it was confusing.” The thing that blows my mind the most is that there was only about an eight year age difference between me and my students. If I had been teaching this year, I bet those students would have recalled almost nothing.
It is frustrating from a teacher’s perspective, because the events of 9/11/2001 mean so much to me and I wish I could truly convey to my students what that day was like. At the same time, I am so grateful that they have had nothing to compare it to in their lifetime, yet I fearfully wonder what this generation’s “9/11” will be. Every age group has its defining historical moment, whether we like it or not.
So, on this day when Facebook statuses and news headlines proclaim, “Never Forget!” remember that there are young adults and children among us who don’t even know and will need us to teach them what happened and what that day was like, not just to rehash the same footage over and over again. They will need to the stories and the details in order to feel connected to the history. They will also need us to support them and to be there for them during their crisis, though I pray it never comes to that.