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.