Except this morning it happens to be September 11th. Like many Americans, when I say that date out loud my voice changes just a little bit. Because I remember. Because it was scary and confusing and just plain horrible.
So this morning, when I said it is Thursday, September 11th, my voice got sad. My 9-year-old daughter sat up straighter in the car and said, “Oh, I know what happened! Can I tell everybody else?”
I told her yes and she proceeded to explain that “bad guys” stole some planes and crashed them into the “twin buildings” and maybe another plane tried to hit the Pentagon. Fairly accurate, but not quite it.
I was torn between my history teacher tendencies to tell the whole story, the fact that I didn’t want to scar the kids and then shove them out of the car to school, and my belief that we should talk about our history (especially the painful and scary parts) with our younger generations.
I felt the weight of responsibility to explain this moment accurately, but with perspective little kids could understand.
On September 11, 2001 I was a 25-year-old teacher in Raleigh, North Carolina. I taught 10th grade World History, but I also taught Sociology and Psychology to two 12th grade classes. During class change, one of my seniors came up and said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center and she wanted to know if we could watch it on our classroom TV until the bell rang.
“Sure”, I replied, thinking that this was like other times that small engine planes had hit one of the towers in New York. Interesting, but not intensely relevant.
And then, of course, the second one hit. And then Tom Brokaw told me they were passenger planes. And the towers collapsed. And the Pentagon exploded. And then I realized that we were under attack in a way that I, in my American naivete, had never even thought to fear.
I let my senior classes watch the whole thing unfold, thinking that as 18-year-old young men and women, they had a right to know what was changing in the world. One boy asked if this would mean the draft came back. One kid whose dad was flying out of Boston that day asked if I could hear the flight numbers of the aircraft. A recent immigrant from Palestine said that she didn’t see what the big deal was–buildings were bombed by terrorists all the time.
I pointed out that no where in the world did 110-story buildings collapse all the time and that, in the United States, terrorist attacks were pretty big news. I felt that same weight I felt this morning. To be accurate, to give solid information without inciting hate or backlash towards others, but to get across what was happening. Honestly, it wasn’t easy in a class with a kid whose grandparents had fled the Holocaust, the jaded kid from Palestine, and a couple of other immigrants from Iran. Not to mention the kids who thought this seemed like a good reason to buy more guns.
I took copious notes during my lunch period over whatever I could find about al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and why people would kill themselves to destroy office buildings. At the start of every class period over the next few weeks we had a brief “here’s what’s new” time to discuss the history that was happening in that very moment. I think I did a pretty good job of conveying significance and awareness of world events without scaring them into hiding in their houses forever. But it was hard and I was uncertain.
So, how do I talk about it with my own kids now–13 years after the raw, painful moments changed our view of what war is?
My children actually already have a decent context for 9/11 because their uncle is a soldier. We have had to explain numerous times over the years why their aunt is here for Christmas or Thanksgiving, but their uncle is away “at the war.” We say that there are bad people in the world who try to hurt others and that our soldiers go fight them in other countries so that they can’t come here.
It is a gross oversimplification, of course, but there’s not a whole lot else to say to little children when they love a soldier who is actually in the fight.
In the first deployment during which my daughter was old enough to notice, I mentioned to our pediatrician that I didn’t know what to tell her. He asked, “are you a religious family?” “Yes,” I said. “Then just have her pray for him.”
What great advice. What an obvious solution that I already knew in my head and my heart. My children are so blessed that they cannot understand the kind of hate that would cause someone to train for their own suicide, taking out as many civilians as possible in the process. I have had to define the word “war” on many occasions. There is no way that I can adequately explain to them what happened on that other September 11th.
But I can tell my kids that we should pray. For the families who lost loved ones in 2001. For the soldiers who are still fighting this fight on a daily basis. For the firemen and policemen who risk themselves every day for us. And even for the “bad guys” who, somewhere along the way, lost their compassion and their humanity.
As they get older we can also pray for our government’s decisions in other countries, for opportunities to make the world a more peaceful place, and for understanding of people desperate and disillusioned enough to choose suicide bombing as a solution for societal problems.
I hope that I am not too forthright with my answers to their questions–I certainly don’t want them to fear terrorist attacks in their beds at night. But I do want them to know that the whole world is not as wonderful as the one they live in. I want them to know that bad people exist in the midst of complex political and economic challenges–and that we can be part of the solutions. I want them to pray–and to never forget.