Column: 17 years after 9/11, how have students’ reactions changed?

Editor’s note: We’re resurfacing this column from educator Patrick Welsh this week for the 17th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

On September 11, 2001, I was in the second week of the new school year with my first period senior English class at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, just a few miles south of the Pentagon. I didn’t know the kids in front of me that well yet, but they seemed like a great group.teacherslounge

Suddenly that morning, a colleague who grew up in the Rockaway section of Queens opened the classroom door and said, “Turn on the TV. The World Trade Center has just been hit by a plane.”

I’ve always believed in never letting school get in the way of my students’ education. I switched on the TV in front of the room and my students and I listened to the announcers speculate about what had happened — only to see the second plane hit. At first, the sight of the towers burning didn’t seem to have much more immediacy than a TV action movie, but soon things in that classroom would get far too immediate.

In what seemed like about a half hour after the second plane hit, we heard a loud explosion outside the school. Several students were startled and I told them not to worry, that “it was just a car backfiring.” A moment later a boy sitting near the windows that faced north said, “That’s no car; look at that black smoke.” We could see an enormous plume of smoke rising in the distance, but didn’t know where it was coming from until, a few seconds later, the NBC reporter stationed at the Pentagon broke into the New York coverage to say that he felt the ground shake beneath him as he heard an explosion – obviously the same one that had just startled my students. As I remember, it was several minutes before it was announced that the explosion came from a plane hitting the Pentagon.

At that point, a boy sitting across the room from the windows – a football player and a macho dude by any standard – suddenly came undone and had to be comforted by the girls in the class. His mom worked in the Pentagon and when he tried to get her on his cell phone he could not get through. As the reporting went on, early estimates of Pentagon deaths were far overblown, some reaching over 800.

Students from other classes whose parents worked at the Pentagon were also panicking and had gotten permission to go out into the halls to try to get cell phone service to reach their parents. As I remember, there was no cell phone service anywhere in the area, and that, combined with the fact that the street in front of the school was at a never-before, bumper-to-bumper standstill, added to a sense that we were trapped and had no idea what was coming next. Students could only leave the school if their parents came to get them and a number of Muslim parents, worried that their children might be somehow blamed for what happened, did come to take their children home. (By the way, the football player’s mom at the Pentagon reached the school later in the day to tell her son that she was OK.)

I spent that whole day with my students and though, at the time, I didn’t have all their names down, as the year went on, we shared a special bond that will last: Whenever someone asks any of us, “Where were you on 9/11?” I’ll remember them and they will remember me.

But what really concerns me is how students – or any of us, for that matter – remember, absorb and see the significance of our national history.

About four weeks after 9/11, I took some thirty students to Manhattan to see a couple of plays, as I had been doing for a few years. On the Saturday morning, I told them to meet me in the lobby of the hotel if they wanted to go to the site of the World Trade Center. Every kid went and the scene was amazing. You could still smell the burning and see smoke rising from parts of the destruction. Several thousand people were walking around the site, yet there was total silence.

I like to think that the kids with me that day got a chance to come closer to plumbing the significance of the biggest historical event of their lifetimes.

However, the next year, when I took a group to New York, only one kid out of some thirty – both his parents were Navy officers – was willing to go the the site. The rest of them went shopping, site-seeing, just hanging out. Part of me wanted to get angry at them, but I knew too well that the immediacy of the present, especially for teenagers, can drown out any desire to delve into the past.

Yet, I still kept trying. On every 9/11 until I retired in 2013, I would have students read C.K. Williams “War,” a difficult but rewarding poem that puts the 9/11 outrage in context of wars going back to the Greeks and Trojans. I would also have them read some of the New York Times’ “Portraits of Grief,” the powerful profiles of the victims of 9/11. What would really bring home the horror of that day was a film by the French brothers Gedeon and Jules Naudet who just happened to be making a documentary about the training of a rookie fireman stationed in the Engine 7, Ladder 1 firehouse in Lower Manhattan when the attacks occurred.

As an English major who took a lot of philosophy and theology courses and always found poetry more interesting than history, I am well aware of how lacking my knowledge and sense of the past has been. My first-period class from that day is now in their early thirties. But I do feel that the one time period that I, and they, know pretty well is the day of Sept. 11, 2001.