I’m teaching freshman writing this semester. I have kids who are a full decade younger than I am.
For the end of the week, I pulled out an editorial about 9-11 that I knew Sonya had loved to teach, then found a couple more good ones and printed them all off. I mentioned to my mom that I was going to do something about the attacks, and she said I should show them some of the news footage.
So I went home that night and found a video on youtube that was about ten minutes long, which showed the main events of the morning from the vantage point of all the major news outlets. I listened to the confusion and fear of the broadcasters and realized that I had never actually seen the live footage before. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in my fourth grade classroom. When I went home that afternoon, my parents hadn’t exactly turned on the tv and suggested I watch.
The next day my first period came in, full of life and sort of antsy. I told them they were going to write about 9-11, and took a poll. Most of them weren’t even alive. The ones who were were only a few months old. A couple boys told me proudly that they were born just days after the attacks.
And then I started the video. We watched Flight 175 crash into the second tower again and again, exploding into that black and orange cloud of fire that, to most of our soft minds, looks like CGI. After a few minutes, I glanced out at my students, who were leaning forward against their desks. Their faces were still and white and they looked as if they had swallowed poison. My own stomach suddenly hurt. They’re fourteen. I thought. They’re children. What am I doing? I shouldn’t have. No. I turned back to the footage as one of the reporters was saying, “And now the south tower is…it’s falling apart. There’s no other way to describe it.” Where it had stood, there was a thick, awful column of smoke, as tall as the tower itself had been, but containing nothing living.
When the video finished, the room was very quiet. I told them to read the three editorials (which you can find here, here, and here) and I put an assignment up on the screen for them to write an editorial of their own.
For the rest of the period (and the two periods after that), I sat at my desk and read my students’ journal entries about last night’s volleyball game, and how high school has a lot more homework than they expected. And they sat at their desks and read and wrote about fear and pain. I looked up at them a few times. Christ Jesus makes all things new, and sometimes I think our grief over wicked things must be made new too. I watched it made new in their faces.
The assignment isn’t due until Monday, but some of them turned them into me already and I read them this weekend. Most of them were angry, the boys especially. They talked a lot about cowardice. They used words like slime and sick and evil and monsters. They said that watching the footage made them tear up or gave them goosebumps. They said they didn’t understand and they wanted revenge.
But that’s not all they said. They talked about bravery and they talked about sacrifice. They had quite a lot to say about justice. Several of them talked about healing. They said that pain was pain, but in that moment, for a while at least, it brought us together on our knees. America woke up and remembered itself. One very-nearly quoted Maya Angelou: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” My students, who remember none of this, saw death and wrote about hope.
I am thankful.