They don't remember 9/11, but suburban teachers say students are intensely interested in it
At the start of the school year, Fremd High School teacher LoriAnne Frieri often asks her social studies students which historical event they are most interested in studying.
The most popular response is almost always the same: the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
High schoolers today weren't born when the terrorists struck 20 years ago. They don't know what it was like to watch the twin towers collapse on live television. They can't recall the shock and fear that permeated the school as educators like Frieri tried to navigate the gravity of the events unfolding.
But students have heard personal reflections from the generations before them, from those who can pinpoint exactly where they were at the time of the attacks, she said. They desire a better understanding of that moment in time.
"They want to know how the events that occurred before their life started continue to impact and shape the way their family and community feel," Frieri said. "It's a shared humanity. Time and connection can be reestablished through the information and (stories) we bring to them."
Suburban schools and communities have memorialized the tragedy over the last two decades with ceremonies, assemblies and moments of silence. But lessons surrounding Sept. 11 also have been present in social studies classrooms, whether it be in the form of foreign policy discourse, stories of devastation and heroism, or discussions about the nation's response to tragedy.
For teachers and parents, "it was a really major event in our lives," said Bill Stepien, lead social studies teacher at St. Charles East High School. "I think there's a tendency to want to make sure it's not lost."
'Students were hurting'
It's impossible to predict the lasting historical impact of a moment while you're in its midst. That was especially true, teachers say, given the scarcity of information available when they first learned of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
That Tuesday morning, in the same Elgin High School classroom in which he still teaches today, John Devine turned on the TV and watched with more than 30 social studies students as the second hijacked plane hit the World Trade Center.
Some began to cry. Others were silent and shellshocked. A few started asking questions right away -- "Who did this, and why?"
In the age before smartphones and broadband internet, Devine remembers escorting a worried student to the main office so she could call her father, who had an office in the Pentagon. To their relief, he wasn't inside when the plane hit.
In her first year teaching at Fremd, Frieri immediately felt the weight of responsibility for the mental and emotional well-being of her students.
The school community was learning about the attacks in real time, she said, and educators had very few answers in the hours and days that followed, making the situation even more difficult to process.
"I remember being very cognizant and aware that the scope of what had happened was much larger than things that I could speak to," Frieri said. "Our students were hurting as much as the world was. My job was to make sure they received the support they needed."
The attacks hit close to home for Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 upon learning of the death of Mari-Rae Sopper, a 1984 Fremd graduate who was aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when it struck the Pentagon.
The loss of the Inverness native shaped the way the district has mourned and honored the nearly 3,000 victims every year for the last two decades, Frieri said.
"Sometimes these things that happen seem like a great distance away," she said. "That distance had become much smaller."
Joe Kish, then a social studies teacher at Wheaton Warrenville South High School, had the only classroom TV in the building, and students and teachers were glued to it that morning.
"At times, there were probably three or four classes in the room," said Kish, now an assistant principal. "Kids sitting on the floor. I remember kind of sitting up on a bookshelf."
Around midday, after the collapse of the second tower, school counselors and educators wrestled with whether students should continue watching history unfold. Outside the classroom, teens and teachers were worried about loved ones who had been traveling. The principal eventually told teachers to turn off the TV.
"It was probably the right move to turn the television off. And I fully recognize that now," Kish said.
Kish recently asked his Facebook friends if any were students in that classroom on 9/11. One became a Navy SEAL. Another did a tour in Iraq, was wounded and awarded the Purple Heart.
"You just look back at the faces that were mostly freshmen in that classroom at Wheaton Warrenville South in 2001 and look at what they're doing now. No. 1, it makes you very proud," Kish said. "But No. 2, there are quite a few people that had their lives changed and occupations partly determined by what happened that day."
The hard conversations
Later that school year and in the years that followed, Stepien and many of his social studies colleagues designated some class time to discussing America's involvement and presence in the Middle East.
It was a new topic for many of them, said Stepien, who worked at St. Charles North at the time. So they shared resources and collaborated on how best to convey a message students could understand.
Explaining the often polarizing views on American foreign policy without placing blame or "being Pollyannaish" was a difficult balance, he said. But students wanted to understand what led to the Sept. 11 attacks, why the U.S. was targeted and how the nation was responding.
Over time, Stepien noticed that interest shifting from the students to the parents. While more recent high schoolers were either too young to remember or weren't born yet, he said, the adults in their families have vivid recollections of the now historic event, on par with the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
"Parents in my generation ... have been a major motor in making sure schools continue to teach (Sept. 11)," Stepien said.
Personal anecdotes seem to resonate most with students, especially as the lessons have evolved the last 20 years, Frieri said. Teens can empathize with the emotional response of a tragedy, she said, and they embrace the opportunity to bring the conversation back to their families and ask what they recall about Sept. 11.
"It's an important part of allowing students to experience and feel the historical record," Frieri said.
Teaching about Sept. 11
In Devine's international relations class at Elgin High School, students complete each unit of study with a policy debate, usually about America's approach to a world problem.
Among the topics covered is whether the U.S. should defend and assertively press for democracy and human rights on a global scale.
For nearly a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, he said, support for such a policy would "win the day" among students. Now it's the losing option.
Rather than wanting to fight terrorism and rid the world of dictatorship, Devine said, "many students, like their parents and others, believe that we need to tend to our own affairs and problems."
That makes for interesting conversations about how and why perspectives shift over time, he said.
Stepien has appreciated the variety of lessons and teaching methods stemming from Sept. 11, whether it be recognizing the heroic efforts of first responders, examining the successes and pitfalls of the country's foreign policy goals, or remembering the unity and patriotism displayed across the nation in the aftermath.
The history class curriculum in St. Charles high schools was rewritten about five years ago with a greater focus on modern events, Stepien said. That has allowed educators to put Sept. 11 and the actions that followed into more comprehensive academic context, he said.
"It's my hope that we would be as brave in looking at 9/11 through a critical lens as we would anything else in our discipline," Stepien said. "I don't think social studies curriculum is a propaganda machine. I think it's one where we ask students to ask the hard questions and have the skills and confidence to answer them."
Devine hopes students don't dwell too heavily on how the U.S. was a victim of terrorism 20 years ago. Instead, he seeks to help them understand how trauma -- and the actions taken afterward -- can change a nation and its people.
"These tests of greatness are scored on the extent in which responses to tragedy remain tied to values of human dignity, justice and good faith," Devine said. "If we stay tied to some solid values, then we can help each other through."
• Daily Herald staff writer Katlyn Smith contributed to this report