I got to my classroom, put on water for tea and straightened the papers piled on my desk. As I looked out the window at the muted green of the late summer grass, I remembered every minute of that terrible day.
Like all of the big events that change our lives, it seemed to me that it had just happened. All of the fear, the confusion, the sadness and the anger came back to me in exquisite detail. I wanted to replay it all again, retelling every detail of what I saw, thought, heard. For me, an adult when that terrible attack happened, September 11th will never be just another day. Never.
But my fifth grade students weren’t even born eleven years ago. To them, the attacks are truly a part of history.
That’s why I decided not to bring up the anniversary with them. I decided that there was no need for me to relive the events, not with these young children. I would have a normal day, savoring that normality just a little more, knowing how precious it really is, and how easily destroyed.
But, as so often happens, the kids surprised me.
In the middle of the morning, as we prepared to start a new science unit, one little girl raised her hand. “We haven’t even talked about 9/11.”, she said, somewhat sternly.
And there I was, surrounded by serious faces, all looking to me for guidance. I wasn’t quite sure of how to react: one part of me welcomed the discussion, while one part wanted to keep it in its place, securely in the past. Away from these innocent children.
But once a question is asked, or a topic is broached, every good teacher knows that it must be addressed. So I took a deep breath, ran my hand down my cheek, and asked,
“What do you know about 9/11?”
To my great relief, the answers focused on the crashing planes, on the fallen towers, on the deaths that followed. Unlike previous classes, no one in this class mentioned the words “Arabs” or “Muslims”. We talked for a bit, taking time to define “terrorism”.
Mostly, though, the kids wanted to share the stories of that day. Like me, they had tales to tell of relatives who were supposed to be on one of the planes, cousins who were working in Manhatten, friends of the family who died that day. Like me, they felt a need somehow to replay the day, to retell the stories they had heard from parents and grandparents.
We were supposed to be reading about aquatic ecosystems, but we needed to talk, and listen and share. I let the conversation go for nearly 30 minutes, until I sensed that it was running down. Then we read about life in a pond.
As I look back on the day, sitting here at home on my couch, I am feeling a melancholy mixture of sadness, pride and protectiveness.
Those twenty four fresh faced children have never lived in a country free of terrorism. They have grown up with the shadow of those memories over every childhood event. They talked about the day with a maturity and understanding that impressed me with its depth, but made me want to shelter them at the same time.
I’m so happy that they understand the significance of the day, and so proud that none of them carry any prejudice about those who committed the crimes.
I’m so sad that they know so much about terrorism, violence, suicide missions and unexpected death on a beautiful fall day.