Sunday, September 11, 2011

Reflections on 9/11

Has it really been 10 years already? Perhaps because we have never truly gotten past it; perhaps because we constantly talk about living in a "post-9/11 world"; perhaps because our narcissism makes our tragedy so much more important than the tragedies that came before our generation - for whatever reason, it is difficult to believe that a full decade has passed since that most surreal of days (side note - the word surreal seems to be used way too much, but there is no other word that I know of to describe the combination of shock, confusion, denial, and inability to absorb the enormity of what happened than to call it surreal).

While I am tempted to offer more general thoughts about the day, I am trying to remain true to the educational nature of this blog, and so I offer a few brief thoughts about what we can share with our students about this day. Keep in mind, of course, that our high school students were no older than 2nd graders, and our middle school students had not yet entered school and thus have no memories of their own of 9/11.

1) Heroism. We live in a world that has many heroes. Superheroes, sports heroes - we even apply the term to large deli sandwiches. However, all of our notions of heroism should be defined by what certain individuals, particularly New York City firefighters, did on 9/11. On an average day, these brave individuals risk injury and sometimes their lives to save others. On 9/11, they took this to an entirely different level. Two massive skyscrapers had been converted in towering infernos, people were being evacuated from the buildings and the area as quickly as possible, and hundreds of New York's bravest WENT UP the towers. That had to be an act that overrode every single inherent survival instinct that man has. And while they could not have known that the buildings would collapse like two stacks of pancakes, those fires were certainly many times worse than anything any one of them had ever before witnessed.

Teach this lesson to our students. In a world where people acting poorly or out of evil or malice often get the headlines, remind them of man's capacity to do incredible good. Heroism has been described as ordinary people doing extraordinary things. To that I would add that all extraordinary things are done by ordinary people - you do not become extraordinary until after the fact.

2) Perspective. My wife likes to remind me that one of the top stories on the news early in the morning of September 11, 2001 was whether or not Michael Jordan was going to make a comeback for one more run at an NBA championship. A couple of hours later, no one really cared about that.

Now, it is certainly possible to be too glib when making that point. Of course, your skinned knee does not matter in light of millions starving in Africa - but your knee still hurts. Perspective is the ability to evaluate events relative to one another, to be able to deal maturely with the world around us, and to understand that which is consequential and that which is not. When Michael Jordan's career can lead the national news, we should have the presence of mind to be thankful that there is nothing of real consequence that requires our attention. We should enjoy our diversions, and recognize that they are exactly that, and we should work to gradually instill this sense of perspective in our students.

3) Finally, a unique challenge that we face in educating about 9/11. I took my children a couple of years ago to the Police Museum in New York City. It is a small museum with a few exhibits, including a small exhibit about 9/11. That exhibit featured rare footage from the day, and there was a sign hanging up that warned that the film might be too intense for children. Notwithstanding that warning, my older children watched the few minutes of film, and they did not find anything that was too disturbing in it. I don't think that this is because my kids have a high tolerance for watching disturbing images - I think that the nature of attacks were such that we really do not have any images that are disturbing for someone who does not remember having lived through that day. Think about it - the clips of the plane hitting the building or the buildings on fire or even the collapse are not much worse than scenes from an average action movie, and even clips of people jumping from the upper floors are taken from so far away that it is hard to truly appreciate the horror of such a moment. The tragedy as it unfolded was relatively faceless - it took the ensuing weeks of tributes to put human images alongside the numbers.

I was thinking about this in contrast to Holocaust education. In that case, we have no shortage of truly disturbing images - of emaciated prisoners, of mass murders, of torture. The Nazis allowed us to see their barbarity in all of its twisted glory, and as such we can still sense the pain and brutality over six decades later. When it comes to 9/11, we have no such pictures. Remember that hospitals were expecting to be overrun with patients who never came - they simply never emerged from the towers. As such, teaching about 9/11 is a task that requires storytellers, people who remember the events of the day, people who can talk about the despair and the worry and the waiting for someone who never came home or who finally did call home many hours later. May we be up to the challenge of preserving the memory of those who perished simply because they were Americans.

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