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A Teacher's View: When 9/11 is just a date in a history book... What do we tell kids?

I stood in front my class and couldn’t figure out the blank stares and why there was a pregnant silence in the room.

I had asked the juniors and seniors: “What do you remember about 9/11?”

Simple, right? I had thought so.

A hand slowly went up in the back: “Mr. J., we were 1 then or not born yet.”

A rush of emotions and reactions hit me. How could I be so dense as to ask such a dumb question? What do I do now? How do I teach about an event that rocked the world — but not their world?

With the 16th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania — and as I grow older — I have started thinking a lot more about how events I lived through and have vivid memories of are just old stories to my students and the coming generations. What am I supposed to do with my memories?

I know this isn’t unique. Time passes.

I can close my eyes and I am back at the first school I taught at. It’s a beautiful autumn day in Northeastern Minnesota. It’s a perfect day. I’m at the school entrance, checking in visitors, and a student rushes up to me. I don’t remember the exact words, but something like, “Mr. J., someone just flew a plane into a building in New York or somewhere!”

I gently chide the student not to not make jokes like that; it’s not funny. All I get back is a quizzical look. I brush it off, thinking the student doesn’t know what he’s talking about, can’t know.

Then a second student promptly shows up and informs me that a plane was flown into the World Trade Center. Now I’m paying attention. This is specific information. But before I can process what’s going on, a fellow teacher says, “You have to get to a TV. There has been an attack.” I sprint to the library, where the only TV in the school is located. I stare in shock. I feel nauseated.

All I really remember from the rest of that day comes now in snapshots. A teacher crying in the corner. Another teacher calling home so his spouse can get her uniform ready; she was in the active reserve. The second plane hitting. Finding out about the Pentagon. And Pennsylvania.

I remember standing in front of my class and the cacophony of questions. I took my class to the library, and we watched the coverage the rest of the day. I did my best to answer all those questions. I’m not sure what kind of job I did.

What I’ll never forget was how my students reacted. They wanted to know everything —  right now. Were we at war? Would they be drafted? What could they do? Who was the Taliban? What was our government going to do? What was going to happen to their parents who were in the military?

I remember how the students comforted a classmate whose dad was a firefighter in New York. He was safe after arriving on the scene following the collapse. But we didn’t know that until two days later.

There were a lot of tears in those two days. The patriotism the students displayed was awe-inspiring.

In the weeks that followed, my classes and I tried to process what happened.

As anniversaries came and went, the students who lived through the event talked about what they experienced, how it felt, how it affected them, and how they had family fighting in the wars we entered. They talked about fellow classmates, my former students, who joined the military and served.

And they did this every year.

Until it started to slow down. Until the memories started to fade. My students were too young to remember much. But we still talked about the day. It was still powerful.

Now, my students and the youth around us didn’t live through that day. Some have visited the memorial in New York City. But it’s just a memorial. Powerful, but a memorial.

So where does that leave us?

I see passion, ambition, patriotism, and hope in this new generation. The event that shapes them will be different from the events that shaped past generations. We may not even know yet what that event is. But there will be one.

My grandparents talked about Pearl Harbor.

My parents talked about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

My generation talked about the shuttle exploding or the Oklahoma City bombing.

I think the secret, as time passes, is to remember such events, to talk about them, to remember them, and to honor their heroes. In each, we came together. We worked together to get through.

My grandparents were of the Greatest Generation. They defeated evil and died by the thousands doing so. I can’t think of a better name for them.

My parents rocked the world. They questioned everything. They took on racism. They tackled poverty with the Great Society. They went to space.

My generation helped plug us in with the internet and smartphones.

The generation after me lived through 9/11, and they fought two wars with honor and courage.

As the anniversary of 9/11 takes place today, we need to take a step back and really reflect. But we can’t stop there. We also need to tell our stories. When I tell my students stories from that day and what I experienced, they are mesmerized. They want to know. They thirst for knowledge.

We need to talk about coming together, about unity, about those values that bind us: love of country, a belief in basic rights for all, hard work, and freedom for everybody.

9/11 was and is a great example of our country rallying together. Our country isn’t perfect; it never will be. But we must take the events of the past and keep the lessons alive.

To make sure the memories stay vivid and real.

If we don’t, we fail this generation.  

Nathan Johson teaches history and journalism at Proctor High School and is a citizen representative on the News Tribune Editorial Board.