Sept. 11 memories fresh for teachers, history for students
On this 11th anniversary, we still harbor vivid and haunting memories of where we were on Sept. 11, 2001. The emotions of that day still smolder, easily rekindled by images of the ominous smoke pouring from the skyscrapers, the unimaginable footage of the second jet's fireball, or even a conversation with a neighbor recalling the fear and grief that washed over our suburban neighborhoods. It was a historic day we will never forget.
But Sept. 11 is different for today's juniors in high school, who will learn about that day in their history classes. These kids were just a few days into kindergarten when our nation was attacked. Most teachers and parents took pains to protect their young minds from the horrors of that day.
While remembrances of Sept. 11, 2001, will be part of many news shows today, the Discovery Channel and the History Channel will devote much of the day to the anniversary.
Noon: "9/11 The Towers & The Pentagon"
3 p.m.: "Killing bin Laden"
4 p.m.: "Secrets of bin Laden's Lair"
5 p.m.: "Secrets of SEAL Team 6"
6 p.m.: "The 9/11 Tapes: Chaos in the Sky" 7 p.m. "The 9/11 Surfer"
3 p.m. "Voices from Inside the Towers"
5 p.m.: "9/11: The Days After"
7 p.m.: "Hotel Ground Zero"
8 p.m.: "102 Minutes That Changed America" 10 p.m. "Man Who Predicted 9/11"
"They have no working memory of that event. There's no emotional attachment," says Joe O'Brien, 37, a history teacher and department supervisor at Libertyville High School. "It's a pretty interesting dynamic because the teachers still have the emotions. To me, it seems like very recent."
The number of students with personal memories of Sept. 11 has been dwindling in the last few years.
"Last year, maybe a handful of kids remembered what they were doing that day," says Derek Gablenz, 42, who teaches U.S. history at Barrington High School. An Army veteran who served in Saudi Arabia and Iraq during the first Gulf War, Gablenz also has a sister who was a flight attendant back then. He was teaching a class at Jacobs High School in Algonquin when his department head came into the classroom to break the news that our nation was under attack.
"I remember this kid screaming, 'Great, we're going to war!'" says Gablenz. The teacher says he used that as a "teachable moment" to explain how this wasn't a video game and people really did die.
When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I was in kindergarten. Older students remember precisely where they were when they heard the news. I don't. I recall the TV news being on as my mom ironed in the kitchen, and I remember watching Kennedy's funeral a few days later, but my memories of Nov. 22, 1963, are misty. I don't remember if I saw legendary TV anchor Walter Cronkite remove his glasses as he solemnly announced the death, or if I've just seen that rerun so many times that it seems as if it is my memory.
Kids who were in kindergarten on Sept. 11, 2001, know that feeling.
"Now, there's a vague recollection of other people telling them about this event," O'Brien says. A day that ranks as a seminal moment for the teacher "is something they've just lived with," O'Brien says of his students. These teens grew up accepting the post-9/11 world and its "new normal" as the "only" normal. They don't remember a time when you could pack a full-size bottle of Alberto VO5 shampoo in your carry-on.
Eleven years ago today, O'Brien was a teacher at Vernon Hills High School. The biggest news of the day was that Michael Jordan was coming out of retirement to play basketball for the Wizards, according to the front page of that day's Chicago Sun-Times, which O'Brien still saves to show students as a reminder of how quickly the world can change. The teacher had a "prep period" and was alone when the principal pulled him into an office because a second plane had hit the tower, and it was clear our nation was under attack.
Ten minutes later, O'Brien was teaching a history class with 25 students. The kids heard something had happened, but they didn't have the luxury of watching the news clips on their smartphones or getting frantic texts from their parents. One kid said he heard something about the Sears Tower being next.
"Whatever we are planning to do today is no longer part of the plan," O'Brien told them.
While he acknowledges that everything is dwarfed by the tragedy of Sept. 11, O'Brien remembers sharing a similar moment from his grade school years.
"When I was in sixth grade, we watched the Challenger lift off live on TV. I have a vague memory of the teacher's reaction when it blew up," he says, recalling the Jan. 28, 1986, space shuttle explosion that killed seven astronauts, including teacher Christa McAuliffe.
While there no doubt will be a moment of silence for the victims of Sept. 11 or other acknowledgment in history classes today throughout the suburbs, "we'll talk about it at the end of the year when we get there," Gablenz says.
Sept. 11 is, after all, part of history, regardless of how fresh it seems to teachers.
"For me, the Vietnam War was ancient history," O'Brien notes. "My teacher was a veteran."
Those of us with such strong memories of Sept. 11 can't imagine the anniversary ever falling from the forefront of the public consciousness. But O'Brien notes that Dec. 7 is just part of the history section about World War II. Gablenz points out that Sept. 11 isn't even the deadliest anniversary of the week. Six days later is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, a Civil War battle in Maryland that left 23,000 dead in what remains the bloodiest day in American history.
History teachers in the late 1800s probably couldn't imagine a day when that date would belong to history.
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