Growing Up, Post-9/11

Friday, September 9, 2011 / 7:50 PM

Wall of front pages detailing the attacks, as seen
at the Newseum's 9/11 exhibit.
I woke up on the morning of September 11, 2001 to a changed world. The attacks began before I woke up on the west coast, and I had to take the time difference into account as my mother turned on the TV and the New York sky was lit in flames. It was still dark in California and the sun was just rising. As I put on my uniform, no one in the house could turn off the television. We kept the radio on all the way to school and, as my mother drove, I remember looking outside the window of the backseat and seeing people silently in their cars looking concerned as they fumbled with their cell phones. I couldn't understand exactly what was happening, but I couldn't get the image out of my mind of that tall, glistening tower in flames.

At school, the older kids were talking and asking each other what happened. I was in the 7th grade, and us junior high students were considered "the adults" of the school. But the day went on as usual: recess, classes, lunch. We didn't turn on the TVs. We didn't pull up the news online. We didn't turn on the radios. I don't think the teachers or administrators knew what to say or do, and that was the common theme of the day, wasn't it? Nobody knew what to say or do.

That afternoon when we got home, the TV was on again and every channel was streaming the same images. News anchors spoke about when the first tower fell and speculated on when another building would fall. I watched 7 World Trade Center crumble live and there was only silence coming from the screen. And even then, we still didn't understand: why did this happen?

This was all before the "social media age," when Twitter and Facebook took over our lives. We turned to the newspapers and the reporters to tell us what was going on. A few months ago, I learned of Osama bin Laden's death through Twitter and Gchat hours before watching Obama's speech on TV. As I sat on the couch with Amanda, watching the president tell us that this man who had architected one of the greatest tragedies in recent American memory was dead, it felt like a weird closing of this circle that was my academic life. 9/11 affected every aspect of American life, and I can barely even remember a time before all that--before the TSA commanded the airports, before this unspoken fear of "the other" was re-instilled in everyday life. I remember going to the airport as a child and seeing my father off on business trips. Na and I would watch his plane take off from the window of the terminal. Nowadays, you can't get to the terminals without a boarding pass and an intrusive security screening process.

Remains of one of the broadcast towers that
stood atop one of the now-fallen buildings
(also at the Newseum's 9/11 exhibit).
With the 10th anniversary of the attacks just a couple of days away, news has been pouring out about this generation of students who don't remember a world before 9/11. Yesterday on NPR, Michel Martin spoke with a teacher and student from The Living Textbook Project about teaching the events of September 11th to this generation, and at Education Week, the writers have been reporting on this too. The problem, some have said, is that 9/11 is so complex, and something that is still trying to be understood and figured out today. I wonder if children in schools were taught about the Vietnam War as it occurred, but it was different then because children in the 60s didn't have the same tools children of the 21st century have at their disposal (internet, cable television, etc.).

When I think back to September 11, 2001, all I can remember is that feeling of watching the towers fall and the silence that seemed to fill every crevice of the country. I don't remember where I heard or read this, but the issue of the New York Times that came out that day was the least read in the newspaper's history. That gives me chills. The world stood still that day and watched America essentially crumble--at least that's what it felt like. The following years brought rise to moments in a blur: the start of war, the threat of terrorism entering our everyday lives...this is what growing up in the 2000s was like. What stories will I tell my potential offspring? Will it all be tinged with the effects of what happened on 9/11? The more I think about it, the more it feels relevant to every aspect of daily life, and then that leads me to wonder: how can classrooms not teach what happened and is still happening? Maybe we don't have definitive answers behind it all--behind the attacks, the terror and the aftermath--but we can start a dialogue about it so that maybe one day, we can collectively move forward.

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  1. I remember talking to you about this the other day, and what strikes me is that, with this new generation of students, it is the first time we have to try and explain what 9/11 was. Since you and I and all the people we know lived through it, our teachers and politicians and writers could all just say "and then 9/11 happened" and we knew exactly what they were talking about. Our college textbooks have titles like "blah blah blah Post-9/11" and we need no explanation as for why the "post-9/11" is a necessary inclusion. This makes me wonder what we miss out on when we study the past we haven't lived through. What deeper-than-words understandings did people have back when the things we study as history happened?