Remembering 9/11 in the Classroom

Finn Wertz, Contributing Writer

The weather in Worcester on September 11, 2019 was nearly identical to what it was in Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. There were not many clouds in the sky, with the temperature in the high sixties. It was the ideal weather to wear a sweatshirt and jeans just as comfortably as a t-shirt and shorts. If you closed your eyes and listened to the construction and the sirens, you could almost mistake the Main South for South Broadway. The biggest difference is that if you strolled through University Park, you would not come back covered in ash and a decade’s worth of therapy. 

This September marks 18 years since 9/11. For clarification, that’s 18 years since four planes crashed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, killing 2,974 people, and putting thousands more through mental illnesses, islamophobia, and the subsequent War on Terror. 

For Clark University, this means that this year’s freshmen are the last class to be born in a pre-9/11 world. For the rest of the world, this means that every K-12 public school, private school, or equivalent are full of kids that do not know what started the war in Afghanistan, or why we have to take our shoes off at the airport, or why people are still afraid of innocent Muslim people. Teachers all across America are now faced with the task of teaching these kids about one of the most horrific incidents in American history without adding to the anxiety they already have just by holding a member card for Generation Z.

For a lot of these teachers, they were just students themselves when the first plane hit the towers. It was a Tuesday morning, and many of the news clips they now show their students are ones that they watched themselves live. They cannot help but slip in their own personal stories and trauma about that fateful day that changed the world. These teachers want to make it feel personal to their students just like they felt, but it is hard to make kids take it seriously when they see BUSH DID 9/11 memes long before they see pictures of “The Falling Man.”

The issue of desensitization is one that’s hard to combat, and might come at the cost of current students who are already fighting mental health. Some teachers want continue to mourn the world they grew up in, and no one can blame them for that. However, does that mean it is okay to show students graphic pictures and videos in an effort to understand how people reacted? Or should it be taught as another page in the history book? Where is the line, is history about the people or the events?

Some would argue that kids need to be exposed to such violent and startling images to grasp the emotional impact it had on the nation and the world in order to understand modern politics, society, and economics. Others argue that showing children such graphic videos and images of death in real time would scar them for life, and it shouldn’t be taught with any emotional connotation. A few others  argue that a day or two of graphic images and videos couldn’t do much harm to the psyche of a student already growing up in an era of violence. 

Even if America tried to enforce a non-emotional education of 9/11, it may not be something that some schools can afford. The history taught to middle and high schoolers doesn’t change much over the years. Therefore, schools don’t need to buy new textbooks every year, or even every decade. The reason most teachers turn to online videos, pictures, and their own experiences to teach modern history is because there’s no material on it in their outdated textbooks. Enforcing an unemotionally biased approach to the education on 9/11 would require new material for teachers to rely on. Any college student can tell you how expensive textbooks are, now imagine a school district having to buy hundreds of them. 

So, emotionally uninvolved education isn’t affordable, but is education with disturbing images and undeniable facts about tragedies the correct way? It doesn’t add up that schools have to send home permission slips for students to watch a PG-13 movie, but any history teacher can show the violent deaths of real people. Is the method of appealing to emotion effective for a more in-depth education? Most definitely. Personally, I cannot recall anything my 9th grade teacher taught me about the Bay of Pigs Invasion, but I can distinctly remember the dead-silence in a room full of otherwise-unruly freshman as we listened to recordings of 9/11 victims calling their families for the last time. And, when our teacher turned the lights back on, we all scrambled to dry our tears to appear unmoved.

Surely, there’s a middle ground between cold indifference and making a bunch of kids cry. Maybe teachers should be allowed to tell their own stories, but not show any pictures or videos of the actual event. They could cover 9/11 but focus on the rescue workers, and not the victims. But does this undermine the significance of the event, and the 3,000 victims? 

It all boils down to how kids deal with death. Everyone experiences death differently, and at different times in their lives. Some students will lose family members early in their lives, and others may not have ever been to a funeral before. Some would be able to learn the importance of 9/11 in an emotionally healthy way, while others would be scarred. There’s no catchall way to deal with death in the classroom, as exhibited by some of the teachers who are still reeling from 9/11 18 years later. But today’s kids are not spared from experiencing death. Even if they haven’t known anyone who has died personally, they are forced to face it as they see the news of the latest school shooting or practice lockdown drills. In the end, it’s hard to teach kids about tragedies while they’re still happening. 


The opinions enumerated in this section represent those of the author and the author alone. They do not reflect the opinions of the editorial board, The Scarlet, or Clark University.