For those of us who were alive or conscious enough to witness it – there is a day in September in which we will pause in our conversations, in our daily routine, or just as we’re driving down the road. It will happen several times throughout the day as we check the date or ask what day it is from someone.
It’s September 11th.
18 years ago I was a nineteen year old kid working as a intern at my local church for our children’s ministry. As the terrifying events unfolded the reality became clearer as the second plane hit. It shocked us into tears when the first tower fell. And it broke our hearts and souls when the second tower collapsed. 2996 lives were annihilated on that Tuesday. We discovered so much about us as a country. We discovered the world was there for us in our moment of need. We discovered that in those moments that we were closer to each other then we’d ever imagined. The country came across the aisle, crossed fences, and stood together in horror, in mourning, in grief, and eventual resolve.
It’s 18 years later. And it’s September 11th. I won’t preach to the choir in discussing how divided, how churlish, how far from each other’s aisles and fence posts we are here in 2019. We’ve taken the discourse into unimaginable depths.
But we do need our students to know what happened that day. We need them to understand why the adults in their world seem to pause every so often on this day. Why they might be more reflective than normal. Why that one day in our history has left such an indelible mark on our culture, our hearts, and our souls. That simply saying, “9-11” brings the heavy, the heartbroken, and the harrowing emotions to bear on those old enough to remember.
Last year was my first year teaching, but I had been through a few field experiences in middle school. I had a few teachers who were willing to turn over the keys during these semesters in order that I could do my own testing of the teaching waters. One of those occasions was on 9-11. I spent the week looking for things to do. And then I stumbled upon this documentary narrated by Tom Hanks. Go ahead, give it a watch. It’s about ten or so minutes long.
The story that had never been told was this very story. That a water evacuation that dwarfed the Dunkirk event was just a few years in our past. And that it was everyday folks who led the effort because someone out there needed help. And they responded without question, without qualm, and in the quietest ways possible – they just did it. And so I played it and had a sheet (see here) that had them tackle questions of heroism, tone, and more. We discussed what made the thing heroic, what we felt, what we saw, what we liked, what gave us the feels – and throughout this discussion I served as the first hand witness sharing what it was like to live in such a moment.
We paired it with Rick Reilly’s article, “The Real New York Giants” which had questions on the other side of the sheet linked above. We talked about loss, and how we’ve felt that. That we know that aching, that absence. But we talked about how these men were dealing with the loss. What they were doing with their grief – and that we could take something from them. That it can be processed, that it can be reconciled, that it can be worked through – but that it matters that you do it with people. The article makes that clear. We then talk about what makes these men heroes which leads us to talk about what heroism looks like – and that it doesn’t have to look or talk like Captain America. That heroism looks very different in the physical, mental, and emotional.
I did all of this last year but I added an additional layer – I tasked the students with asking the people they live with a question – “What did 9-11 mean to you?”. The answers were incredible and the students began to understand how significant and important this event was in the lives of those around them. Several reported their parents got emotional about it and that helped spur on further conversations in which there was more sharing and more open conversation about things.
This year I’m doing most of it all over again. I have no idea what tomorrow will look and feel like with these students. Last year was last year. This group has their own feelings, thoughts, ideas, and personalities. We’ll journey through the lesson tomorrow carefully and mindful of our emotions as a class. We’ll talk through it. We’ll work through it. Together.
Tomorrow is September 11th. You can take this lesson, you can adapt it, or you can reject it. I use with 6th grade, and that’s about where I’d keep it. It could be used up to College age, but I’d be leery of putting this in front of elementary age students.