February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Not Fade Away: Ten years after 9/11, how do you teach kids about a tragedy they can’t remember?

By Frances Jacobson Harris

SLJ1108w_FT_911c(Original Import)

September 11, 2001, wasn’t a normal day for most of us. The students at my Illinois high school packed into the library to watch the nonstop news coverage. Those in computer-lab classes kept trying their luck with CNN’s much-overburdened website. Administrators cruised the halls, looking for kids with relatives who worked at or near ground zero or the Pentagon or who were just too upset to focus on school. Our principal sent out periodic email updates as he heard from alumni, friends, and families. One of our former students, a freshman at New York University, sent this report in the early afternoon:

Just wanted to let you know that the NYU people are okay. Starting from a few blocks south of Washington Square Park, the buildings and streets are being evacuated—basically all of Lower Manhattan, but we’re all fine here. Two of my friends actually saw both towers go down. I was in my room when I heard screams. Huge masses of people ran down the street, and on the radio I heard that the towers had collapsed. To be honest, I thought it was a joke, like War of the Worlds. Around where I am, I think the panic has subsided, but people are still really freaked out. Classes have been canceled for today. There’s actually an NYU dorm near the WTC, but we haven’t heard about the people there.

At the end of the school day, our principal sent an email to students, parents, and staff lauding their thoughtful responses to the tragedy. We’d try to maintain our regular routines, he wrote, but he’d understand if some families temporarily kept their children at home. “In our interconnected world, many in our community have friends or relatives who work and live in New York or Washington,” he observed. “Some still await word about their safety. The tears shed today are not likely to be the last.”

In the days and weeks that followed, our school became a kind of sanctuary. We held a memorial observance and continued to share our news through schoolwide emails. A few of those messages pushed the boundaries. One student circulated a Christian-themed poem called “Where Was God on September 11?” A teacher peppered staff emails with large images of American flags and other patriotic symbols. Given the circumstances, most everyone was tolerant of those responses. But one afternoon a small delegation of students from the school newspaper came to me to complain about the poem. They wanted to know why the system administrator (the moderator of our email lists) allowed it to go out. Not only was the message unrelated to school business, they argued, but the religious content was inappropriate. I will confess that as a card-carrying anticensorship librarian, I was somewhat bemused by their response to this particular display of free expression. But we had a good discussion about it.

Recognizing this incident as a teachable moment, the system administrator and I decided to incorporate it into our ethics unit for an eighth-grade computer-literacy course. Each semester, we post six technology-related ethical scenarios on an online forum. (You can learn more about this in my book, I Found It on the Internet: Coming of Age Online, second edition [ALA Editions, 2010].) As much as possible, the scenarios mirror real-life school situations or current events. The students first discuss the scenarios online, and then we follow up with a classroom discussion. The revised scenario (we’ve changed the senders’ names and other personal details) looks like this:

After the September 11 terrorist attack, many students and teachers send related email to the “all-student” or “all-faculty” mailing lists. Most of the messages contain information about the status of former students and about ways people can help in the crisis. But Penelope sends a long note with a heavy religious message. And Mr. Snidden sends out patriotic graphics and images. A small delegation of students takes their objections to the administration. They understood that these all-school mailing lists, which are screened by the school’s system administrator, were supposed to be used for school-related, informational purposes only.

It’s important to note that although all of our scenarios have a technology connection, they’re not necessarily technology dependent. In fact, this particular scenario is about a number of things that have less to do with email than they do with issues such as freedom of speech, separation of church and state, the role of school rules and procedures, and (in the case of the blast of patriotic imagery) political correctness. We also hoped the scenario would encourage kids to reflect on the events of September 11 and people’s responses to them.

We used this scenario each semester for four or five years. At first, our students were largely sympathetic to those email messages:

Although this would normally be inappropriate, under these extreme circumstances it is important for people to understand the ways others are dealing with the events of 9/11.

I think that it is OK. Under the circumstances, I think that it is reasonable. People that don’t want to see this material do not need to open it. Some people might need to know how other people think about it.

If there was disagreement among our students, it was mostly around the appropriateness of Penelope’s religious message. Hardly a soul objected to Mr. Snidden’s patriotic missives, as seen in the following responses:

I think that sending patriotic images to students is all right. I don’t think that sending heavily religious messages is good. It might offend some people depending on what the message says.

I think that it is perfectly fine for people to send out religious emails. Although it is bad if they are rude or mean, as long as they have a telling subject. People don’t need to read them.

I agree. If the reader doesn’t like the title of the email, they don’t need to read it but it isn’t a crime and I don’t think there is anything wrong with sending those kinds of emails.

In a way, it is school related because these things are helping to comfort somebody who is in pain about these events. In my opinion, it’s worth it even if it helps only one person get over their grief.

But as the years progressed, the tone of students’ responses began to change. We saw fewer references to grief and more emphasis on rules and consequences:

The mailing lists are for school information. Only under specific circumstances should other information be sent via the school email. People should keep their religion and opinions to themselves to avoid any chance of conflict.

The all-school lists should be school-related topics. Other stuff can be directed to specific people over the email. This way, people won’t be harassed by a ton of junk.

Dude, I totally agree with you. I think that the school server is, literally, the SCHOOL SERVER. It shouldn’t relate to other topics. If they want to have a server for other topics, they should check with one of the school administrators to see if they can form one where they can talk about worldwide news.

We realized that for these later groups of students, September 11 had become history, an event that held no direct, personal significance for them. They interpreted the scenario in much more black-and-white terms. Not happy with these increasingly rote responses, we ultimately stopped using the scenario with our classes.

Just eight years after the 2001 attacks, Eli Saslow wrote about this kind of disengagement in the Washington Post (“9/11 as a Lesson, Not a Memory”): “From the personal to the preserved—this is the uncomfortable transition that time requires of all great tragedies.” Every momentous historical event affects real people. After the fact, we struggle not only to capture the historical record, but also to encourage a meaningful and lasting response. Those of us who are old enough to remember September 11 don’t think of it as history, but then my parents don’t think of the McCarthy hearings or the Holocaust as history. For my incoming students, all of these events are part of an “it didn’t happen to me” past.

What can we do as librarians? Our challenge is to help upcoming generations comprehend the events of September 11, as well as appreciate something of the immediacy and impact that we experienced. We can do that by teaching with passion and by taking advantage of the power of primary sources. The sheer abundance of digital resources that are available offers us an opportunity to get it right by providing a tapestry of story lines rather than the “good guy versus bad guy” portrayal that so often emerges. Primary sources not only help personalize events, but also effectively depict the complexity of the political, social, religious, and cultural forces at work. Young people need to learn that no single perspective is adequate, and that every narrative comes with its own backstory.

Author Information
Frances Jacobson Harris (francey@illinois.edu) is a librarian at the University Laboratory High School at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.