KENDALLVILLE — Friday marked the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. Two commercial jets, hijacked by terrorists, flew into the twin towers, bringing them to the ground. Another hijacked jetliner hit the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
A fourth plane never reached its target because its hijackers deliberately crashed it in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, as the passengers stormed the cockpit.
The 19 suicidal hijackers killed 2,997 people and injured 6,000 others in the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor in 1941. The attacks joined other moments in history — the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the 1969 NASA moon landing, the explosions of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia — as the collective experience and common memory of their generations.
Psychology professor Neil Bohannon of Butler University in Indianapolis calls the concept of a shared memory experience a “flashbulb memory,” in which emotions are tied to significant personal memories. People know where they were and what they were doing when an event like 9/11 occurs because of the deep emotional and psychological effects they experienced when the event happened.
Today’s high school students were all born after 9/11. They know 9/11 as a really sad time in America’s history but are not connected to the terrorist attacks’ deep emotional and psychological effects on a nation.
History teachers of today’s students approach Sept. 11 in a variety of contexts, balancing personal memories with historical facts and new ways to help students understand how 9/11 changed American life.
It’s not all in the textbook
Several area history teachers say 9/11 is included in their textbooks, but the details of the day have been summarized as time passes. Teachers must supplement their presentations with photographs, videos, news reports and oral histories to complete the picture of 9/11 for their students. The teachers’ memories of 9/11, though, are influenced by how old they were themselves when the attacks happened.
Carli Vose, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at DeKalb Middle School, said her students will read President George W. Bush’s address to the nation the evening of the attack, then watch the video of the speech.
“Then the students will be listening to various oral history reports from those who witnessed or were directly affected by the attack,” Vose said. “Then the students will choose one of the victims they learned about through the oral histories and create a Google Drawing. This Google Drawing will serve as an “In Memory of...” piece of art to honor the individual.”
Brett Elzroth, also a seventh-grade social studies teacher at DeKalb Middle School, takes a more personal approach, showing videos and images from 9/11 and talking about his own memories of the day.
“I recall we were ISTEP testing, and a colleague came and told me about it during a break,” Elzroth said. “I looked on my computer and was shocked, and my first reaction was ‘what a terrible accident.’ After I heard about the second plane, I felt ‘this is an attack.’
“I remember an eerie feeling that night looking into the night sky and not seeing any plane lights. We talk about how we need to appreciate all those who serve including military, police, firefighters and first responders.”
Ryan Eakins teaches U.S. history at East Noble High School. He believes history doesn’t become real to students until they connect the dots on a personal level. The 9/11 attacks follow the unit on World War II, so Eakins has students compare Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 with the 9/11 attacks.
“In my AP (advanced placement) USH and U.S. history classes, I ask the students what they know (or think they know) — since they weren’t born yet — first,” Eakins said. “Then I make it personal and share with them my experiences, as well as looking at multiple perspectives of how Americans reacted and felt as well as how this event impacted the U.S. from there. If time allows, we look at President Bush’s response, address to the USA. From my experience, the best 9/11 lessons allow for open discussion.”
Eakins shares his own memories of the 9/11 attacks, when he was an eighth grade student.
“I remember walking in to Mr. Hacker’s history class and him turning on the TV, which never happened. He simply uttered the words, “A plane has hit the World Trade Center…” Eakins said.
“We as young teenagers had no comprehension of that statement. We sat in silence and watched the second plane hit the second tower. We moved from class to class that day with an eerily creepy silence in the hallways. A middle school lunch with only whispers is unheard of! Teachers had no idea what say, athletic events were canceled, the lines at gas stations were a quarter-mile long. It was a day I will never forget.”
Andy Bell takes a broader approach to 9/11 in his U.S. government class at East Noble, focusing on government responses and the long-term effects on American life.
“9/11 usually comes organically in government class,” Bell said. “Whether that be from a search/seizure standpoint and the USA Patriot Act, Michael Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 911’ when we talk about political advertising and the Citizen’s United lawsuit, the creation of the National Intelligence Director and Homeland Security because of the lack of shared information about 9/11, or about Congress investigative powers or even the president’s commander-In-chief power.”
Kathryn Cybulski, a sixth-grade teacher at DeKalb Middle School, was only 10 years old when 9/11 happened, so her perspective is different than teachers who are older.
“I use as many primary sources as possible. I show my students a news clip covering the events of the day as they were unfolding,” Cybulski said. “It helps them get a sense of the chaos and shock. I talk to them about what I remember and how it impacted me.”
“We also listen to a song that was released shortly after the attacks, called ‘Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning’ by Alan Jackson. We talked about the feelings the song emotes. Using sources that came from the time period help students to understand the atmosphere in the United States after 9/11.”
Perceptions and surprises
Depending on age, students come into a social studies, history or government class with some knowledge of 9/11. The teachers interviewed for this story said they encourage open discussion where students can ask questions and process facts. Teachers sometimes have to debunk various conspiracy theories about 9/11 that students may have heard.
“I would say that they all know about 9/11, though I don’t think it’s something they think deeply about,” Vose said. “It appears that it is just another historical event to them. They do express empathy and sadness when discussing it, as well as respect for those who helped during and after.”
Elzroth said his students ask basic questions about why 9/11 happened and why the terrorists would commit such an act.
“They all realize, there are longer lines at airports due to security, even though it is inconvenient, a little time used to make us all safer,” Elzroth said. “They see the rise of terrorism and how our government has responded to these threats.”
Cybulski said her students seem eager to know about her memories of the attacks.
“Most students have heard of it, but don’t know much about what happened, she said. “They tend to ask questions about what I remember and what my experience was. They make it pretty personal. I leave plenty of time for questions and discussion, but I never really know what they might ask. It can vary from year to year and even from class to class.”
Cybulski said that she doesn’t wade into the consequences of 9/11 too much in her sixth grade classes. She discusses how air travel has changed since 9/11 and tries to convey the emotional effect of 9/11 on the nation and its people.
Vose said her students are sometimes surprised to discover that historical events have consequences that last for a long time or even permanently change society.
“In regards to what surprises them, I would say that they are often surprised to hear that many individuals (first responders, survivors, etc.) are still experiencing negative health effects even years after the event,” she said.
Within months of the 9/11 attacks, Congress acted to establish Patriot Day as a day of remembrance for the 2,977 victims lost in the attacks, a number which excludes the 19 hijackers.
The first official Patriot Day was celebrated on Sept. 11, 2002, with the American flag flown at half-staff and a moment of silence at 8:46 a.m. EDT, the time that the first place hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
Patriot Day is not a federal holiday, meaning that schools and businesses remain open. Many communities have chosen to celebrate Patriot Day with volunteerism and service opportunities. Schools schedule programs and activities to recognize the day.
“This is an annual observance for us and each building level takes this special opportunity to recognize, explain and help students understand the significance behind this special date,” said Lori Vaughan, DeKalb Central assistant superintendent.
“Additionally, each building level administrator offers special recognition primarily during daily announcements to make sure that all of our students know why the flag is at half-staff and again, the importance and meaning of Patriot Day and 9/11.”