by Susanne Stefani
When I started teaching seven years ago, it was the fourth anniversary of 9/11. My sophomores had been eleven years old when people leapt from burning towers, and the flames had seared their memories. My nervous decision to scrap any formal plans in favor of an informal discussion about the occasion was met with earnest questions (“Why would the terrorists do that?”), reflections (“I saw my dad cry for the first time”), and compassion (“I feel so bad for those families”). It was a day full of those magical teaching moments that appear in movies: I said things, they nodded thoughtfully, hands flew up with more questions, and so it went.
This year, however, we discussed a day that occurred when my students were only four years old. Consider for a moment your eleventh year compared to your fourth. (In my eleventh year, I had decided to marry Kevin Costner; in my fourth, I was collecting potato bugs as pets.) On this anniversary of 9/11, when I asked a class of 38 kids who remembered that fateful morning, two hands went up. Both said they recalled their mothers crying in front of the TV. That’s it.
I tried explaining the concept of a fish not knowing it’s in water, but talking about a time when contact lens wearers could carry more than a three-ounce bottle of saline solution on an aircraft seems like a superficial example of the pervasive ways in which life has changed. My students who are aware of the events of 9/11 have much less to say nowadays, and while they’re interested, many face uncertainty about what to ask.
A couple of years ago when I was teaching a remedial freshman class, I was shocked when—in response to a 9/11 reference—one boy asked, “What is that?”… as in, What does it mean when people say nine-eleven? I was overwhelmed. How do I tell the story of that September morning from scratch? How do I capture the horror and sadness of it all? How do I keep it from terrifying students who have never processed the story before? But worse than the tremendous task of breaking the “news” of 9/11 was the fact that it was news at all.
I took note that year of a definite socioeconomic pattern in my students’ responses. Those in advanced classes were fairly familiar with the event, whereas my lower-level students were typically those whose background knowledge ranged from zero to “What’s a terrorist?” A kid whose parent works two or three jobs is less likely to have the luxury of dinner-table conversations about current events. Many such young people have never seen a news program. And further, it’s difficult for a kid to watch anything—or care about much more than basic needs—when she lives in a car or on a relative’s couch.
So their collective awareness dwindles. The networks have stopped airing documentaries and specials marking the occasion. And 9/11 becomes to them what JFK’s assassination was to me and what Pearl Harbor was to my parents. Except that this occurred in their lifetimes, and it seems far too soon to be filing this conversation away under “Historical Events of Which We’re Vaguely Aware.”
I marked this year’s anniversary just as I did the last several: with a lesson around the literature of 9/11. But the approach has changed for a new audience. Passersby may have heard what sounded like the beginning of a history lesson rather than a conversation between Americans only eleven years after the fact: “So, who can tell us what happened on September 11th, 2001?”
(Susanne Stefani is a writer and a creative writing teacher at McNary High School.)