Screams of terror were muddled together, burning debris consumed what was once fresh air, and fires roared relentlessly in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania, the result of a senseless act of terrorism. Horrific expressions were set on the tear-stricken faces of Americans all over the country. September 11, 2001 left the families and friends of nearly 3000 victims in a state of sorrow and pain. In the wake of this event, the country rallied together in a brief and tragic moment in history. After the attacks of 9/11, “Never forget” became a rallying plea across the nation.
And “never forget” remains a plea heard by many educators as they prepare to teach their students about this catastrophic day. However, today’s students who sit in modern day classrooms were not alive to experience or remember the tragedy. Teachers and other adults across the country now grapple with how to discuss the attacks and their aftermath to a generation of young people who were not even born when they occurred.
Despite this, some teachers approach 9/11 as a topic part of United States history. Some honor the anniversary alongside their students. Others are hesitant and unable to deem the best way to teach about 9/11 in a suitable and touching manner. Some even refrain from mentioning the tragedy altogether. The latter can be frustrating to students who have only ever been alive in the post 9/11 world and wish to understand more behind the impacts of the tragic attacks.
Social Science teacher Sean Radcliff believes that exploring beyond the common knowledge of 9/11 and diving deep into understanding the events and responses that followed is highly beneficial and significant for students.
“Understanding the events and response to [9/11] really illuminates a lot of of the reasoning behind why the world is the way it currently is,” Radcliff said. “In the past several years, our country has launched offensive military actions in at least seven countries. Understanding the significance of [9/11] is a big part of understanding the reasoning by being involved in all those countries.”
Unlike Radcliff, however, there are some teachers who are wary to dive more in-depth about 9/11. Concerns over the sensitive nature of this issue and the closeness of it for many people may cause hesitation when deciding appropriate teaching practices. This can be discouraging to students who wish to better understand the world they live in and its past.
“I think it is important for teachers to cover 9/11 every year because we are still experiencing the effects of it—like terrorism, islamophobia, and our military presence in the Middle East,” senior Alex Jarosik said. “[But] I don’t think many teachers cover 9/11 at [RMHS] because they assume we already know everything there is to know about it.”
Jarosik’s observation that fewer teachers are covering 9/11 each year might be one to consider changing. Now that the 18-year gap and a plethora of additional acquired information surrounding the events can be used as a great advantage, teachers can better educate young students in a straightforward manner.
“As compared to a few years ago, I think it is even easier to teach about 9/11,” Radcliff said. “There’s some distance between us and the event now, so it’s a little less emotionally charged. Death and destruction will always be relevant and emotionally sensitive, but the distance allows us to study the day objectively. I do not believe that I would [or possibly should] teach the same lesson if it was 2002. The wounds would be too fresh for a lot of students and staff.”
The idea that this tragedy is timeless as it appeals to emotion especially holds strong when hearing personal stories of individuals greatly impacted by 9/11. One person who immediately took action after the events of 9/11 was RMHS security guard, James Steiner.
Steiner was a senior in high school when 9/11 took place. He left for school late that morning, learned about the consecutive plane crashes on the radio, and then watched the chaos and horrific aftermath unravel live on television upon reaching the school. Steiner was compelled to take action and seven days after 9/11, he was officially enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.
“I knew I was going to join the military and since I knew I was going to war, I wanted to be part of the best fighting force on the planet,” Steiner said.
Steiner’s story is one that captures the interest of others instantly. His account portrays the extent to which 9/11 impacted Americans across the nation. As an individual who was literally in the middle of the aftermath that 9/11 evoked, Steiner has similar beliefs to Radcliff regarding how to present students should encounter information surrounding 9/11.
“I believe students need to learn what led up to the attacks and the ideology of those who attacked us,” Steiner said. “I also think it’s important to clarify why we went into Iraq and Afghanistan also the differences in both conflicts. The most important thing about teaching 9/11 is what and why this happened and the historical significance in the middle eastern region. It is [also] important to teach the strength of the American people and how we rallied together to rebound from the horrific attacks.”
Though short lived, this newly derived unity immediately following the attacks proved to many that when provoked, Americans could rise above.
Radcliff strives to execute what Steiner hopes to see in classrooms on 9/11 by provoking deeper thought and discussion regarding the subject. Depending on the class, Radcliff creates a lesson about the tragedy that connects themes within the class curriculum to present the various information in a relevant manner. In his Human Geography class, Radcliff will emphasize the ways in which culture brought together and divided the country. In World Religions, Radcliff will be paying more attention to the different motivations behind the attack.
“The religious aspects have been the most publicized motivations behind the attack, but we would be ignoring a big part of the picture if we leave out other social, political, and economic reasons that may have led to the attack,” Radcliff said. “We also focus on how cultural and religious ignorance led to more hate in the aftermath of 9/11. One of the first hate crimes was the murder of an American Sikh, who was mistaken for a Muslim.”
Although it has been 18 years between now and 9/11, students can still benefit from extensively learning about the event and its influence. Though it may be easiest to convey this horrific event through the simplistic notion of a proposed two sided argument, high school students need to know more than the basic facts surrounding 9/11. Rather, students must learn how to look deeply into multi-dimensional stories that are the foundation of our shared understanding of history. Dates and names simply won’t be enough. Stories like Steiner’s are one way to grasp the attention of students’ and delve deeper, and today, students observed flags at half mast in honor of the eighteenth anniversary of 9/11.
“I believe it’s incredibly important to present a balanced and nuanced approach to September 11th. It was a tragedy, and the victims deserve to be remembered,” Radcliff said. “In my opinion, the best way to honor their memory is by learning about the situation and what led to it. We can reinforce security and launch offensive wars, but that won’t be able to stop everything. If we include empathy and an understanding of conditions that led to the attack, we have a better shot of preventing another one.”