Post-9/11 generation learns about tragedy as history lesson

Published 8:02 am Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Educators recall personal memories to help make history come alive for students

Sept. 11, 2001, was one of the most devastating days in American history. Terrorist attacks were orchestrated on United States soil, and thousands of lives were lost. It was also a day that brought people together and unified them through common ground.

Those who were alive can recall vivid memories of where they were when the events unfolded and what they were doing. Every year, they remember the heroes and those who lost their lives.

Yet, 17 years later, a new generation born post-9/11 doesn’t know of a life that was different. It is hard to imagine a life where there was less security at the airport, where families could walk loved ones to the gates and watch airplanes taking flight. For Pacelli High School freshmen Sam King, 14, and Caitlin Drees, 14, the day they learned about as “Patriots Day” held a different emotional connection for those who were born before them.

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“I learned about it in social studies class in fourth grade,” King said. “I’m learning about it through someone who actually experienced it. It’s not the same as a textbook.”

“Teachers would tell me ‘today’s a special day,’ but I never really understood why,” Drees said. “The videos helped us learn about it, but I can’t believe it happened.”

Austin High School freshmen Logan Slezak, 14, and Waylon Nelson, 14, both learned about the events of that day through sources like their parents and history lessons as well as video documentaries and news reports.

“It sounded really scary,” Slezak said. “I learned that a relative was protecting the president when it happened at the time. There were people who died from the towers collapsing, and some having to relive the day and remember them. This could happen again.”

“I always wondered what if,” Nelson also answered. “I was scared of planes before, but after that, I was always wondering ‘What if a plane gets hijacked?’ It still freaks me out thinking about it. I’ve had teachers who talked about it when I was younger, but I never really knew what it was.”

‘Each generation has a moment’

Jeff Anderson has been teaching current events and history for 28 years. His classroom at Austin High School is decorated with historical memorabilia, including a mannequin dressed in a World War I soldier’s uniform. His classroom was the same one he was in on 9/11, where he watched the events unfold across the television screen.

A screen that is no longer there.

“I was in this same classroom,” he recalled. “My wife was a stay-at-home mom. A plane had just hit the towers. When we watched the television, a second plane had just crashed into the second tower. We talked about what we were seeing.

“Every generation has a moment, for my parents it was JFK. Ours was 9/11.”

The class was in disbelief, Anderson said. Some students grew emotional, while Anderson tried to reassure them that students were safe. The lesson plans were forgotten about that day, and the entirety of that day and the days that followed Anderson was trying to cope with what happened.

“There were more questions after it happened, and why,” he said. “It was so surreal. We couldn’t really comprehend what was going on. There were questions for days after.”

Before 9/11, Anderson remembered how his wife had lost her driver’s license in summer 2000, but was able to use a school identification card to board an airplane at the gate.

“Those days are gone,” he said. “This generation will never know anything different. As a social studies teacher, I was alive for 9/11 and had personal experience. We tailor what we talk about in each individual course. It’s hard for us to think that there are people who didn’t live through 9/11.”

Teaching a historical event of 9/11’s magnitude to generations that would not have a single memory from that day was different. Anderson shared that his approach to teaching didn’t change despite this fact.

“Seniors were a year old,” he said. “Most of the students won’t have a memory of the event. As a result, when we talk about it now as a historical event, it’s like World War I or Vietnam, it’s not as real to them, or knowing how life has changed because of it.”

‘Everyone has a hero’

For 31 years, Marnie Leif had served as a teacher at Pacelli Catholic Schools. When 9/11 unfolded, Leif could recall exactly what she was doing at the time.

“Kids were in gym,” Leif remembered. “The first plane crashed before 9 a.m. There was information around, and we weren’t sure about what was happening, but tried to conduct the day as normally as we could. Some families came to pick up students, and some students had parents who were traveling at the time.”

With younger students, teachers were careful not to share too much information that would frighten them. Following 9/11, students came to the classroom after watching the news for several days and had questions.

Marnie Leif, a teacher with Pacelli, talks about how she handled the tragedy of 9/11 as it happened on that fateful day in 2001. Photos by Eric Johnson/

“We did a lot of prayers for the victims, the rescue workers and prayed during religion classes,” Leif said. “The church prayed the rosary, there was some quiet time and we did what we could. Students had questions that were difficult to answer, and we didn’t know why or who did this. ”

Years after 9/11, Leif saw the emotional distance that students began to display when learning about 9/11 as a history lesson as opposed to having a personal memory that connected them to the day.

“These students didn’t know any different,” she said. “It’s history to them.”

How Pacelli approached talking about 9/11 was like a history lesson, but there was also extra emphasis in performing acts of service to the community and the “everyday heroes” who came forward on 9/11 and helped the victims and survivors.

“We teach history, but also what you can do to give back,” Leif said. “So we talk about heroes. Everyone has a hero in their lives. For these students we have a day of service and remembrance to pay respects and talk about the heroes, pray and make it personal to their lives today.”

“Almost like a conviction”

When David Wolff started his career in education, he was excited and nervous. He wasn’t expecting to witness one of the most horrific chapters in United States history within his first year of teaching, let alone explaining the tragedy to second grade students.

It was the morning of 9/11, and Wolff had just started gathering his students at Park Christian School in Moorhead for carpet morning meeting time. They had just finished talking about the calendar date, and sharing things they saw on television.

“First one of my students said that an airplane crashed into a building,” Wolff said. “I took that with a grain of salt, and thought back to a radio control plane or something (that) flew into an apartment building a year or two ago and thought it was similar to that event. More kids were sharing things they heard on the news, but nothing was alarming at the time.”

The now-Neveln Elementary School principal didn’t see “Good Morning America” while the events were unfolding. Around 9:30 a.m., the building secretary told teachers that as a country, the U.S. was under attack. Terrorists had hijacked airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon as well as crashing one into a field in Pennsylvania, where it was later reported that United Flight 93 passengers and crew had sacrificed their lives fighting against hijackers as the plane was meant to crash into the White House or the U.S. Capitol.

David Wolff, Neveln Elementary principal, was a first-year teacher when 9/11 took place. Photos by Eric Johnson/

“That day was chaotic,” Wolff said. “No one knew the facts, and or what was happening in our building since there were no cellphones at the time. We didn’t get information from outside of the building until I went home and watched the news and getting the full impact and the story. It really just hit hard about the scale of the event.”

Wolff’s wife, Melissa, had an aunt and uncle who worked at the Empire State Building and was unable to reach them through phone calls. The days that followed, Wolff was worried, but also had to try his best to answer his young students’ questions as much as he could. After a while, Wolff received news that his wife’s aunt and uncle were okay and had actually taken off work on 9/11 and weren’t in the downtown area.

“It was hard,” he said. “You had kids asking questions and wondering why someone would do this. As a teacher, you feel helpless when you didn’t have the answers and while having that additional emotional connection. I was wondering if they were still in downtown Manhattan? Could the building they were in (the Empire State Building) be attacked as well? It never came across in my mind in my preparation that something of that magnitude would be something that we’d need to talk about with my students.”

Life after 9/11 was almost uncertain. Wolff remembered gas prices fluctuating from $7 to $5 and increased security. However, he did recall the immense display of patriotism from Americans from all walks of life coming together in solidarity with one another.

“It was almost like a conviction as something to show and revere all those who were lost,” Wolff said. “We’re coming together, and supporting everyone. There weren’t so many things separating us at that time. There was more common ground. Like the flag shirts, we wore them all the time.”

When Wolff started teaching students about 9/11, it was interesting to him to see students not remembering 9/11. There were no point of references like movies at the time, and watching 9/11 videos was different to students because they weren’t alive.

“I have an emotional connection to that day, that image,” he said. “You have flashbacks where you remember where you were and what you were doing and who was in front of you. You have those emotional pieces that connect you to that moment, which these kids don’t know. It’s learning and it’s good for them to know about that and sets the stage for where we’re at right now.”

Austin Public Schools had emphasized recognizing veterans and those who lost their lives. Wolff said that as a district, educators and administrators had taken the time for students to help them learn and think about what those special days were about, and help them understand events that weren’t just movies or textbooks, including 9/11.

“These are the people in our community who sacrificed their lives, and many gave it their all,” he said. “This is an opportunity to think about the help they provided us on 9/11 and give back to them. It’s different to teach them how that day impacted as a nation, even as a classroom teacher,” Wolff said. “Even what life was like in the following months was filled with uncertainty.”

Within that first year of teaching, Wolff started a class quilt where students were able to decorate a square as a center of focus of what they would remember for the entire year. He remembered exactly what his students drew.

“It had red and white stripes and blue with white stars,” he said. “Nine-eleven was the picture they drew for the quilt square.”