Making students understand September 11 . . .

On Tuesday morning, I was cleaning stalls and thinking . . . and for some reason, found my thoughts drifting to a very unsettling realization.

My students, for the most part, no longer know what it was like on September 11, 2001.

My eighteen-year olds were only four that day. My nineteen-year olds, just five. How young is too young to comprehend something of that magnitude? To fully comprehend what it was like to know that not only was our nation about to go to war against an unknown enemy, but that thousands of innocent people had died in that opening gauntlet? To watch the reactions from around the world, see the children in Pakistan cheering and stomping on our flag, utterly bewildered that they could take such pleasure from our grief?

To realize that we knew nothing?

I was 25, and I was too young.

I’ve only been teaching since 2008. But I’ve always been able to use September 11 as a touchstone, a way to reach my students. When we talk about Pearl Harbor especially, I talk about the attack itself, the way the Japanese surprised us on a clear, sunny Sunday morning, and the reaction of people across the nation. Then I can say, “This was their September 11.”

I used to see the realization dawning in their eyes, the slow nods of their heads, the solemn, reverent way they now looked at the photos of the listing, smoke-filled USS Arizona on the screen before them. No longer a random date in history; it now had meaning, because they knew, exactly, what America felt that day as the news began to spread that we had lost the majority of the Pacific Fleet, and thousands of American lives, in just half an hour.

I don’t see that anymore. Not really. I see what they think I want to see:  heads nodding, thoughtfully, as if to say, “Yes, I’ll nod, because it’s what she wants and because I really should know what this means, but . . . I don’t.”

And I don’t know how to teach them that.

I don’t even think I can.

As I was thinking over this on Tuesday morning — a bright, clear, sunny day, again — I heard a fighter jet flying overhead, and rushed out of the barn. By that time, it was already gone, no doubt on its way to McConnell AFB an hour away. I went back inside the barn. Five minutes later, I heard another booming overhead.

It took me back to that week like nothing else.

I remember what it was like to look up into the skies and see emptiness. Nothing. I live in Kansas. I live between two major airports and two major Air Force bases. Planes are a part of life. To go on my walks in the country, look up into that clear blue endless sky, and see nothing, to hear nothing, was so eerie. It hit home, over and over, that this was not a normal week. That we were a nation afraid. Unsure of ourselves for maybe the first time in history. And I remember the feeling I got when I went for a walk one afternoon, glanced up — and saw one lone white stream, a single jet. How my heart almost stopped. How I clutched my dog’s leash so tight, she whined. Because all I could think was, why is it there? Where is it going? What’s it going to do when it gets there?

I still remember the twenty-four-hour live coverage. I still remember the shock of the very first commercial — a Toyota commercial. Staring at it, uncomprehending. Who cares about buying a freaking car? It was betrayal. It was hope.

Those are the things I can’t communicate to my students. I don’t know how. I wouldn’t even know where to start.

The sad thing is, I am sure that someday, they will have their own September 11.

I hope not. I would rather have to dig deep within myself, dredge up memories I’d rather not, and use my experiences to explain it to them, to try to make them understand, that for them to go through what we did on that day. To watch the towers collapse, knowing that rescue workers were still inside. To remember exactly what you were eating for breakfast, or how you spent that day, or which chair you collapsed into, unable to watch and unable to make yourself look away.

But I watch them, and I know that it’s coming. And I see in them myself, on September 10, 2001. Barely knowing what’s going on in the world. I try to tell them. We talk about ISIS. We talk about the war in Syria. We discuss the Mubarek regime and what it means for Middle East stability — or instability. And I see the totally blank looks. The ones that say Geez, Ms. Hill, let us get back to our Candy Crush already! Nothing’s going to happen. This doesn’t matter to us. 

Maybe it takes out-of-the-blue tragedies to make a generation wake up and realize we’re not alone in the world.

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