Teaching 9/11 to students too young to remember

It’s first period and, as I do most years on this day, I’m staring at a computer screen, debating scrapping my lesson plans for the day in favor of some kind of September 11 activity.

Some years I’ve gone with my gut and done it, some years I’ve gone with my gut and haven’t. With ninth graders, it’s usually a huge flop anyway, as they tend to have the attention span of fruit flies on acid. In journalism, you can focus on the news coverage, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t depending on what you use. I’ve found that the falling man images are a little too extreme for me, let alone kids.

But this year, I realized something: I can’t do a “Where were you when you first heard what happened?” activity. Or one about how the events of that day changed you. Because my freshmen were three years old on September 11, 2001, and if they did know something big was going on, they certainly weren’t able to understand the magnitude of it.

In a sense, I envy these kids. They never experienced the lost feeling of safety that none of us who remember it well will probably ever fully recover. They don’t remember the utter incomprehension of that day. The frantic phone calls. The sighs of relief when they went through. The panic when they didn’t.

To these kids, 9/11 is no more real than the Cold War was to me. I was alive during the end of it, but it never meant anything to me. I never hid under my desk in a bomb drill or had nightmares about the Soviets blowing us up. My first understanding that my world might not be impenetrably safe came when my elementary school teacher let us watch CNN when the Gulf War started—something so unheard of that we were glued to the screen, fascinated. I remember hearing the phrase “terrorist reprisals” mentioned and, in my young mind, the only image I could fathom was silent, Arabian Nights-style extremists climbing up to my window, a pirate-like cutlass between their teeth, to slit my little American throat. But when I confessed this fear to my parents and was assured that a) that wasn’t what the phrase meant and b) that I was perfectly safe, I went on with my unworried childhood.

I don’t even remember thinking the word “terrorism” again until the Oklahoma City bombing, which only had a strong impact on me because my brother’s friend’s father died in that. And as a teenager, it was still something that happened to other people, someplace far away, even though I knew someone involved.

But for my generation, 9/11 changed our collective social consciousness, probably in a similar way to the effect that the Kennedy assassination had on my parents’ generation. It became our “Where were you when?” moment. Maybe every generation has one of those. Maybe every generation needs one. And I’m sure that my current students, who are too young to remember mine, will have their innocence stripped away in one of those moments all too soon.

Maybe it’s wrong to not focus on it in my classes today. You could certainly argue that I’m not doing my part to honor the memory of the innocent people who died eleven years ago. And I would agree with you. But I don’t know that there’s an appropriate English-class way to make them understand why it’s so important. I personally could write a paper on the Kennedy assassination or the Cold War or Hiroshima, but I couldn’t really feel it because I didn’t live it. And that’s part of my decision to stick to the curriculum today.

But the other part is that while I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t lose anyone eleven years ago, it was still a day that changed me. It changed all of us who are old enough to really remember it. And part of me wants to let these kids keep their innocence until the world forces them to lose it. Yes, by all means, teach them what happened in history class and at home. Explain the significance. Help them to understand what happened in a way that those of who saw that second plane crash into the World Trade Center never truly will. But don’t teach them that they have to live with the fear that we never completely lost because of the events of 9/11.

They’ll learn that lesson on their own soon enough.

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The real Hanukkah miracle? I didn’t burn my house down this year!

Hanukkah ends tonight, which brings me to my most thankful time of the year.

No, I don’t mean that I’m thankful for the presents I got (although I LOVE my new surround sound amp—thanks mom and dad!), I mean because I made it through another Hanukkah without burning my house down.

Which is MUCH harder than you’d think. Trust me. I’ve had a few close calls.

Granted, only two of my three major apartment fires have been Hanukkah related. The non-Hanukkah fire REALLY wasn’t my fault. Whoever wired my condo nearly a dozen years before I was born set up the kitchen outlets on two different circuits, so when I was on a massive home improvement kick and wanted to replace the really old plugs, I didn’t realize one outlet was still live after I shut off the main kitchen circuit breaker. Luckily when the sparks set the roll of paper towels on fire, I was right next to the sink and was able to put it out by myself.  Then I cried hysterically, called my dad, and told him I burned my house down.

The last two Hanukkahs, however, I wasn’t as lucky.

It’s a little known fact that Hanukkah is actually the most dangerous event of the Jewish year (assuming that it’s a year when no one is trying to exterminate us en masse, which DOES happen way too frequently for comfort). Christmas trees and deep fried turkeys may account for most winter house fires in non-Jewish families, but Hanukkah is responsible for approximately 97 percent of Jewish house fires (assuming that my household is the norm, not the exception).

Personally, I think it’s a conspiracy.

No, I’m not paranoid. Hear me out.

Menorahs are the most dangerous products in a Jewish household. As a people, we’re notorious worriers. I never even knew that they made non-safety scissors until I got to college. But Hanukkah candles are long because they’re supposed to burn for awhile to memorialize the miracle that started the holiday, and they’re put in these teeny tiny little shallow candle holding cups on a menorah.

The big problem though is that menorahs lull us into a false sense of security. When you first buy your menorah, the candles fit snugly, making you think that your house is safe. But after a couple of years worth of candle wax buildup, those mini-torches are wobbling in that thing like a fat chick eating Jello during an earthquake.

And there’s no effective way to clean the wax out of a menorah. It doesn’t matter what you do, it’s resistant to all things that could remove it. I’ve tried a knife, wax remover, Goo Gone, Draino, acetone, Windex (at my father’s suggestion because he seems to agree with the dad from My Big Fat Greek Wedding that Windex cures everything from acne to AIDS), diesel gasoline, the flesh-eating virus, Rogaine (don’t ask), termites, uranium, Everclear (which I’m pretty sure was far more dangerous than the uranium… the menorah didn’t glow on its own before the Everclear… just saying…), and Kryptonite. Nothing works.

But it never occurs to me to buy a new menorah.

It’s not worth buying a new one; I only use it eight nights a year. So even though spending an additional twenty bucks on a new menorah could save me the trouble of having to buy all new stuff when my house is destroyed in a fire, I’m still not going to do it.

The menorahs are only part of the conspiracy though. Because Hanukkah wrapping paper is made out of a substance that is 876 times more flammable than lighter fluid. Literally. If you look at it angrily, it WILL burst into flames. If it’s even in the same zip code as a lit menorah, you’re looking at a six alarm fire.

Which, believe it or not, isn’t the WORST thing that can happen to a single girl, because fire fighters are usually pretty hot. Not Jewish (sorry mom), but hot. In fact, after the last couple of Hanukkahs, my local fire department has ME on speed dial and they call me around sundown every night of the holiday just to see if my house is on fire yet. 

And it’s probably a bad sign when I can call 911 and say, “Hey, it’s Sara,” and they respond, “Oh hey! Happy Hanukkah! We already sent out a fire truck, they should be there any second. What’s new?  How’s Rosie?”

Hanukkah is also particularly frustrating in my condo, because I have the world’s most sensitive smoke detector. Literally. It goes off when I dry my hair and every time I cook anything, even though I’ve never had a hair or cooking related fire. And I get REALLY annoyed with it when there IS a fire and it starts going off like ten minutes later. It’s like, thanks Captain Obvious, the fire department just left and you’re going to go off NOW? Fail.

To be fair, I do try really hard to avoid needing to call the fire department. I keep my fire extinguisher out when the candles are lit, and I now open presents in the bathtub, where I can put the fire out pretty easily, and I only open them AFTER the candles have completely burned out. The wrapping paper still bursts spontaneously into flames sometimes, but I’ve found that keeping all presents in the freezer until it’s time to open them helps.  Which didn’t work out well for ANYONE the year that I got a pony as a present.

I’m sure I’ve jinxed myself for the last night of Hanukkah by writing about this, because I actually made it through the first seven nights with NO uncontrolled blazes. Of course, the only lighter I could find that actually worked was shaped like a naked chick, which felt kind of wrong to use for religious purposes, but maybe it’s been good luck.

Although, few people know this, but the fire department has a frequent fires card, and if I get ONE more hole punched in it, they’re going to give me a firetruck shaped menorah, and I’m not gonna lie,  really want to get that.  After this many fires, I’ve earned it!

Happy last night of Hanukkah everyone!  And if your house catches on fire and this fireman shows up, please send him my way… we’ll call it your Hanukkah present to me.