Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Grappling with 9/11

As I quietly went from desk to desk in a fifth grade classroom to monitor their progress on a grammar worksheet I bent over one boy's desk to offer feedback. In the midst of my whispered conversation the girl to my left tapped me on the shoulder. "Were the Twin Towers knocked down on purpose, or by accident?" she whispered, her brow furrowed with confusion. The boy I was working with popped his head up. "I told you," he retorted, "It was an accident!" She ignored him and asked me the question again, "Was it on purpose, or an accident?"

A week after the anniversary the question took me by surprise. I was focused on explaining to an English language learner that rebake wasn't a word but reheat was. These were fifth graders. Surely they knew the history of 9/11.

I realized I wasn't sure the right way to approach the question. I handled it (unfortunately) like any disgruntled teacher does when an off topic conversation rears its head during a lesson. "It was on purpose but we aren't talking about that right now. Get back to work." How in the midst of a grammar lesson do you stop and explain 9/11? Somehow it seems like it would be the parents' job to teach what happened, but I certainly don't know when I'll sit down with my own children and say, "So, one day not so long ago people from another country got on airplanes and intentionally flew them into big buildings. Because they don't like our country. But it's OK to get on airplanes, that doesn't usually happen. And your uncle is totally OK in his fancy office building in New York City. Normally airplanes don't hit buildings."

If I can't imagine having that conversation with my own children, how do we have that conversation in a classroom with other people's children? It's not part of the curriculum and we aren't expected to teach it or even talk about it. There's a part of me that worries if we did talk about we would get letters from upset parents who felt it wasn't our place to discuss 9/11 with their children. So we stay away from it and continue with business as usual.

I was in college when 9/11 occurred, so I  did not have to come to school on September 12th and explain the day before to my students, but in the years to come my students remembered the day, or at least knew about it because it was still so raw for all of us. In those first few anniversary years my school invited the marine band to come play for us and we had essay writing contests about what freedom means. Now the anniversary comes and goes and we barely notice it.

The kids know something happened, but they don't have the full story. Someone should talk about it. Someone should teach it. We can't gloss over our history because it's uncomfortable. Perhaps we're not quite ready as a society to turn it into a social narrative with a lesson to be learned at the end, like we have with Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, or slavery. When we teach those there is a clear message we can open and end with. If the students walk away with one piece of information from the lesson it should be that it doesn't matter if you appear different- everyone is the same inside. (We're talking elementary school- in high school you can get into the finer points.) When we teach slavery there is a clear, "This was absolutely horrible and will never happen again" message that can underline the lessons. Have we settled on the same single narrative for 9/11?

Or perhaps it's hard for us to teach because we don't feel we can look at a roomful of students and honestly say it won't happen again. Do we get into promising the students that TSA will keep us all safe? That it is totally OK to get onto airplanes because statistically speaking they won't crash into tall buildings? Do we tell them it's not about religion or nationality and tell them not to fear those who are different from them? (We could contrast 9/11 with school shootings- of people who cause horror who are from our country and are similar to us.) Perhaps we're too worried that as we talk about it our own fears, anger, or skepticism will come out. And since we haven't come to a single narrative for 9/11 as we have for other historical events in our country we shy away from the topic, worried our words will upset children and families.

We need a beautiful, Patricia Palocco children's book that will let us grapple with the hard message as we follow a single set of characters. Is it still too soon for us grown ups? The children need to hear something about our history. Where do we start?


Stacy said... I always read this book to my 3rd graders. The last page says that the towers are not there anymore and that leads to a discussion about what happened to them. I always frame it as a discussion of all the heroes that saved people that day, rather than focus on the less elementary school friendly aspects of 9/11.

Unknown said...

This is fascinating to me. I was born five years after Pearl Harbor. But World War II followed immediately, so the single event of Pearl Harbor was never made into the centerpiece of that historical period. I think that the isolated nature of 9/11 is what has made it so fraught, even though it was followed (but much later) by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Making that comparison, I'm not sure that it's necessary to teach in detail about 9/11. And especially to young children. It needs to come up, yes, and especially in the New York region; but it needs to be put in context which can only be done effectively with older children. That, of course, is apart from the necessary reassurances that children need if they or their family members are going to travel by plane.