When I first started teaching in Queens in 2005, my high school students knew about the September 11th attacks. After all, they had lived it. They remembered the terror that filled their New York City classrooms, the fear in their parents’ eyes when they picked them up from school, the inescapable newscasters interrupting their regularly scheduled broadcasts.
Each year on September 11th, to connect my students to the 9/11 lesson, I asked them the same questions: Where were you on that infamous day? What do you remember? How did it affect you? They always had answers.
Then, this past winter, I decided to take a few students to the site of Ground Zero, now the home to the 9/11 Memorial. Before we embarked on the trip, I asked these same questions. The two girls in the class were eighteen and remembered the panic, the confusion, the smoke. But the boys in my class had been three and four years old when the attacks occurred.
“I don’t have any memory of it,” one of the boys said.
It was the first time that I knew what it would have felt like for someone who had been alive during Pearl Harbor to hear someone say, “What was Pearl Harbor?”
Visting Ground Zero
It was a cold day when we stood around the footprints that the Twin Towers had left. They were now square holes and waterfalls that looked ready to freeze poured into the empty pits, into a netherworld.
The towers once had thousands of people working inside, I explained. But it was hard for them to imagine towers in this place. Thousands of people lost their lives when the planes hit, I added. My students nodded and circled the voids, reading the names etched into the bronze panels that surrounded the footprints.
These names belonged to people who had left their wives and husbands and children and parents the morning of September 11th, I said. They all had love and passion and dreams until the planes hit, until the towers fell. It was hard for my students to connect with a time that they had never known.
The only survivor in the memorial courtyard on that day was a gnarled pear tree that required metal wires to keep it erect. After the attacks, it had been reduced to an eight foot stump. A few years later, when it was rehabilitating in a city park, the tree was uprooted by a storm. But again it survived.
The Museum for the Victims of 9/11
After the memorial visit, we went inside the temporary museum and walked through the small exhibit where photographs of the victims, charred papers, twisted metal, and firefighter’s uniforms were on display. The consequences of terrorism and heroism were becoming real to my five students. But the inanimate objects were just a little stronger than lectures and accounts from history books.
Then one of the docents approached us and started to quiz the kids on what they knew about 9/11. He was an affable man and eager for the kids to walk away with a message. And even as he spoke about the tragedies, he recognized that he needed to use humor to engage them. But the humor fased fast.
“Hundreds of firemen died here that day,” he said. “My son was a firefighter who also died that day.”
The first tear rolled down one girl’s face and then tears spilled from the eyes of the second girl. The three boys twisted or bit nervously at the corners of their mouths.
“But I don’t hate. Where would that get me?” the man said.
The girls clutched one another for support.
I knew that a man from my hometown had been very involved with the memorial after he had lost his son in the attacks. I asked the docent for his son’s name and for his hometown. It turned out that the man was my neighbor.
“There’s a statue of his son in a park back home,” I said to my students. “I’d never met his son, but I see him whenever I visit that park. His son was a hero.”
The man’s face contorted to fight back emotion, which he probably reserved for his bedroom at night, after another day of recounting his son’s murder, keeping the memory of 9/11 alive. There was a moment of quiet. I could feel the scratchiness in my throat. I could hear the exhalations from a few students. I could feel his hand reach out t squeeze my arm.
“Your teacher knows my son,” the man announced to the kids.
Another docent came over with tissues.
Photo by US National Archives