Thursday, September 9, 2010

five nine-elevens

Five years ago, it was the fourth anniversary of 9/11. My sophomores had been eleven years old when people leapt from burning towers, and the flames had seared their memories. My nervous decision to scrap any formal plans in favor of an informal discussion was met with earnest questions (“Why would the terrorists do that?”), reflections (“I saw my dad cry for the first time”), and compassion (“I feel bad for those families today”).

Last year, however, we discussed a day that occurred when my students were only seven years old. Consider for a moment your eleventh year compared to your seventh. (In my eleventh year, I had already decided to marry Kevin Costner; in my seventh, I was putting teeth under my pillow for a quarter.) Certainly, the maturity level is different, as is the sense of awareness, and of course, memories become blurry further back. But what struck me last September was how blurry that September was for students. Those who knew what it was had much less to say and, while interested, were less certain of what to ask.

Yes, I said those who knew what it was. There are occasional moments in teaching that make me want to cry, and one such moment last year was after the question “What is that?” . . . as in, What does it mean when people say nine-eleven? First, I was overwhelmed. How do I tell the story of 9/11 from scratch? How do I capture the horror and sadness of it all? How do I keep it from terrifying students who have never processed the story before?

But worse than the overwhelming task of breaking the “news” of 9/11 was the fact that it was news at all. I noticed a definite socioeconomic pattern in the responses of my students. Those in honors classes were, by and large, still fairly familiar with the event, whereas my lower-level students were typically those whose background knowledge ranged from zero to “What’s a terrorist?” A kid whose parent works two or three jobs is less likely to take part in dinner-table conversations about current events. Many of those kids have never seen a news program. And further, it’s difficult for a kid to watch anything—or care about much more than basic needs—when he lives in a car or on a relative’s couch.

I’ll mark this year’s anniversary just as I did the last five: with a lesson around the literature of 9/11. But the approach must change for a new audience. Passersby may hear what sounds like the beginning of a social studies lesson on a historical event, rather than a conversation between Americans only nine years later: “So, who can tell us what happened on September 11th, 2001?”

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