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Twenty Years Later: We Remember 2001-2021

My thoughts this Saturday morning on the twentieth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States on 9/11/2001:

I‘ve left the school where I was teaching third grade on September 11, 2001 – retired this year. Among all the tributes and memorials, I’m seeing in news reports this week that kids today are being taught about the terrorist attacks because twenty years is now history and none of the kids in schools today had yet been born when it happened. They will never know the fear and anger their parents felt as the drama played out for weeks and months following the event. And just as we teachers would forecast, students are learning about this in class and in books, as removed and dispassionate as my generation was in learning about historical events such as Pearl Harbor when we were young. I hope not.

Perhaps pulling the US out of Afghanistan this summer makes the topic relevant for today’s learners, more than it has in the past ten years or so. Twenty years in that war of wars is too much, especially when our involvement proved to have so little impact. And our focus should be on healing our own divided country and eliminating the domestic terrorism that has us all saddened or angry over what our country has become.

The following is from my social media post on September 11, 2013 – twelve years after the attack and while I was still teaching – on a day when 125 fifth and sixth grade students would have come to art class in my room:

Flag pins made by third grade students following 9/11/2001

I wore this “flag” pin to school today, as I have for the past 12 years. I was a third grade classroom teacher on 9/11/2001 and had a lovely class of 26 or so kids who I had just met a few weeks earlier. We were just settling in to our school day when an urgent announcement was made for all teachers to check their email. The email informed us of the terrorist attacks and asked to keep our cool and not to talk to our students about it. That was a tall order. We had so many questions. We had email, but few of us had cell phones or cell service then, so we didn’t have access to news or each other. The school internet was shut down almost immediately. Teachers talked quietly in hallways, in doors between classes, and at lunch we gathered around a TV in the teachers room and watched in horror as the planes hit the towers, over and over again. And then we returned to our classrooms. Numb. What a long, difficult day it was. 

My son was in the same school with me, at that time in a fifth grade classroom with a teacher I trusted and respected. Still, sometime in the middle of the day, I snuck a moment to go across the school and up the stairs to simply look at him, to see for myself that he was okay. I had to see him.

Later that day, the administrators went class-to-class in the 5th and 6th grade classrooms (our highest grade levels) to tell the kids what had happened. I can only imagine how difficult that must have been for them. I also grew concerned for my third graders, who rode the same buses with the older kids. Although they are young adults now, I can still visualize their little faces as we gathered around for circle time at the end of the day. “You will hear stories from other kids on the bus about bad things that happened today,” I told them, trying hard to keep it together, “Just promise me that you’ll try not to listen, and wait until you get home to let your parents be the first ones who you talk to about what happened.” 

The days that followed were full of questions, theories, and patriotism. My classroom became a safe haven, a respite from the incessant news reports. My students had a great need to “do something to help”. We made the pins in the photo above and sold them for $1 each. We also made a simpler version with just 6 large beads on a large safety pin. Entire extended families worked on the pins at home. Parents gravitated to the classroom and helped my third graders produce pin after pin. Others donated the supplies we needed. Together we raised several hundred dollars for George Bush’s “America’s Fund for Afghan Children”.  

While I’ll never know if it was the best way to respond, or if there were other charities we could have helped with our donations, I do know that with this project, my class became a community united in one purpose – to help others. And while we may have missed a spelling test or two while we were making pins, sorting materials, or counting donations, we were actively engaged in math and in developing fine motor skills, teamwork, and empathy. When I look back over my teaching career, I realize how this authentic service project was at the core of my values then and helped shape the ideals I developed as an educator over time.

Today is Saturday, September 11, 2021. The students in my third grade class in 2001 are now 28 or 29 years old. I wonder what they remember from our shared experience twenty years ago. I wonder if they or their families still have the pins we made, as I do. I wonder what they will tell their own children about that day today and in the coming years. Lastly, I hope I did well by them and their families on September 11, 2001 and in the weeks and months that followed.

We remember 🇺🇸

My son playing Let There Be Peace on Earth at our school assembly in the months following 9/11

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