Editor’s note: This is the third article in a series that will run this week to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, I was a student teacher in an inner-city school in Phoenix, Arizona.
We started most days with a little writing activity (similar to the freewriting I’ve mentioned in earlier blog posts) and the teacher–my mentor–decided to work the 9/11 terrorist attacks into that day’s assignment. Because I had been observing the class for the past several weeks, we decided that I was finally ready to lead the class through this particular activity.
With pens and pencils ready to go, the students listened as I shared my own memories from that tragic day. I had been a junior in college at the time, and I was the only one of four suitemates who’d had the luxury of sleeping late that morning. When one of the other girls knocked on my door to announce “a plane just flew into the World Trade Center!” I rolled over and closed my eyes, too groggy to comprehend what she meant.
My suitemates likely didn’t grasp the severity of the situation either, and they all went off to class. After a frantic call from my mom a few minutes later, I finally pulled myself out of bed and switched on the TV to hear that the twin towers had collapsed.
“That can’t be right,” I thought to myself. But then the camera zoomed in on the smoking pile of rubble, and I knew I would not be going back to bed that morning.
Classes were eventually cancelled that day. My suitemates and I spent the next few hours sitting hunched on the floor by the phone. We sipped instant noodles out of mugs and plastic Tupperware containers (no one wanted to use the mug that showed a picture of the Looney Toons characters against the now-outdated New York City skyline) and waited for news of my friend’s father, who worked only blocks away from the Trade Center.
“And now,” I said to my students, who hadn’t yet spoken a word. “On the piece of paper in front of you, tell me what you remember about September 11th.”
Silence for moment.
Then, “What if we don’t remember anything?”
Everyone suddenly had something to say. Some kids insisted that they were too young to recall the details of 9/11. Others announced that they had been living in Mexico at that time (the vast majority of my students were originally from there), and thus they had no idea what I was talking about.
“But you must have something to say about September 11th,” I said. “What went through you mind when when you first heard what was going on?”
“Nothing went through my mind,” one girl said, and another added, “It was just a regular day for me.”
Although the students did not ordinarily react to writing assignments with enthusiasm, I had never seen such intense resistance before. A few seemed downright outraged that I would ask them to write their memories about something that had happened so long ago and so far away, in a world so different from the one they knew.
Struck as I was by this response, I struggled to be fair. After all, these kids did have more pressing concerns than a five-year-old tragedy. Between poverty and gang violence, most had already known the pain of losing a loved one at a young age; they did not need an event like 9/11 to help them imagine what pain could be.
“If you can’t remember anything about the morning of September 11th,” I said. “Try to imagine that day in your mind. How do you feel when you hear about what happened to all those people?
“I don’t feel anything,” one boy said loudly. “Why should I? This isn’t my country.”
Had I been a more experienced teacher and writer, I could have handled this situation more than slack-jawed shock.
Perhaps I could have told the students that as writers, we often record detailed accounts of the events in our lives–but this should not be our only strength. Sometimes, we must place ourselves in other worlds and write about life through the eyes of a Civil War-era southern belle who has just seen her father’s plantation burn to the ground, or imagine the despair of a prince of Troy who can only watch helplessly as Greek soldiers pour from the belly of a tall, wooden horse.
Have I witnessed either of these firsthand? Of course not. But I understand the universal human experiences of pain, grief, and loss. And I can imagine those feelings in others almost as vividly as if I were facing them myself.
I regret, for my students’ sake, that they’d put such walls between themselves and other parts the country in which they’d currently lived. And I hope that with age (they’d be in their early twenties now) they’ve all gained more of an ability to step outside their own narrow experiences.
Ever since that fifth anniversary of 9/11, I have not asked subsequent classes to write about the tragedy. Since the students of each passing year were only getting younger and younger, I mostly avoided the topic entirely. Now, however, as the tenth anniversary approaches, I’m working up my courage to attempt this activity again.
My students now are mostly from New Jersey, but they were no more than four or five on that morning when the first plane struck the north tower. I think I’ll begin by asking them to verbally recall even their dimmest memories from that day. For those that have none, I’ll ask them to try to put themselves in the place of an eyewitness, and to empathize with those who saw their world collapse that day.
Thursday: “Nonstory” by Aida Silver
Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.