They weren’t born yet

This morning the sky was a perfect blue.  The air was cool and sweet. I drove to work with the radio on, just as I did eleven years ago.

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.


12 thoughts on “They weren’t born yet

  1. My daughter was born in August 2001. She was less than three weeks old on 9/11, and I always mark the day in terms of her… a tiny newborn in my arm and now a precocious preteen on the verge of adolescence. Although we regularly visit NYC and she has been at Ground Zero numerous times, she’s never expressed much interest… until today. She came home from school eager to share all the details of 9/11. She was telling me about the day just as she shares all the details of the Hunger Games Trilogy (which she reads over and over again.) Her sudden need to tell me the facts contrasted so sharply with what my friend Donn’s daughter – less than two years older – shared with him today. His daughter composed a poem to her mother, Shelley Marshall, who died in the Pentagon. Talking about my memories of 9/11 sometimes seems so trivial compared to all he went through that day…but I also know the collective memories mean so much to him and his children.


    • Trina, thank you for sharing your stories. I’m so sorry for your friend, and for his daughter, and especially for the Mother who lost all those years with her child! I know what you mean about our memories seeming trivial; I know people who lost family and friends that day, too. But I agree that the sharing of our collective memories is somehow the way that we keep those people alive in our memories.


  2. It’s important that those of us who lived through the day pass the significance on to those who didn’t or are too young to remember, even though the impact can never be the same. I wake up every December 7, and my first thought is that it’s Pearl Harbor Day. But I can’t feel it the same way my parents did, and my son may remember at some point during the day, but not with the intensity I do, and not with the same intensity he thinks about 9/11, when he was just starting his freshman year in college. With each generation, something inevitably is lost, but we have to pass along as much as we can.


    • I used the same analogy, that of Pearl Harbor, in talking to my husband about the kids today. I will never feel it the way that those who lived it did. And my children will never live Nov.22 the same way that I did. These children will only know of 9/11 from us. And I think that is a good thing! We can’t hold onto the traumas of our history and still move forward, not if we really hang onto the emotional strain.


  3. I’m writing this from Canada and yesterday couldn’t decide how much of the ‘recollection of it I wanted to expose myself to but, I did think about how I had sat on my couch on that day with all four of my young teen children and wondered if I shouldn’t turn off the tv but knew I couldn’t keep them from the future that started then.


  4. Children deserve the truth, but how much and at what age? They so want to grow up, and we so want for them to slow down. I think that the sadness we fell is for their loss of innocence. If we pluck it too soon, who can give it back?


    • Such good questions!
      And you are so right; it is the loss of the children’s innocence that makes me so sad. I hated to be a part of taking that away through our discussion, although I know that I was helping by guiding and reflecting on what was said.


  5. I had just found out we were expected our youngest “bonus” child a few days before that day. It is amazing when I stop to think that what to him is “historical fact” was something the older kids witnessed and remember. Makes for some interesting conversations in our home when he asks his oldest siblings what they were doing and what they remember about that day.


    • It is really a fascinating unfolding of events to watch as we experience history, especially as I am teaching history at the same time. In my family, growing up, it was the JFK assassination that divided us by historical memory.


  6. I always loved hearing my children come home from school and tell me about a class where the discussion – I am assuming it was unplanned – veered from the curriculum onto an important event or concept. I remain indebted to their teachers (like you) for giving them the space and time to express their thoughts.


    • Thank you for saying that! Unfortunately, the pressure to keep marching toward test days is getting greater and greater. I find myself internally anxious when I
      “lose time” even to great discussions. Your feedback helps me to stay true to what I know is right.


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