9/11: We Need a Complex Story

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I reflected upon 9/11 from several different angles yesterday. Then, just as I was ready to close the anniversary, a radio story brought it into focus in an additional way. The radio story was an NPR feature entitled, “Teaching Sept. 11 to Students Who Were Born After The Attacks Happened.” It wonders how educators should teach 9/11 to students too young to remember these events. Though young students did not live through these experiences themselves, they have only known a post-9/11 context. “They have big knowledge gaps” about the day itself, NPR states, yet these students are immersed in the consequences of a post-9/11 world.

“Many teachers struggle with whether and how to teach the attacks and their aftermath,”  the story states. In one sense, we are only fifteen years distanced from events, and we are still grappling with the complexities we lived on that day and the years that followed. But it’s crucial that we teach this story. And not just any version will do. It’s crucial that we teach a complex story.

We need a complex story.
Our children need that,
and so do we.

It’s important honor the grief and fear that Americans felt on that day fifteen years ago. We also need to grapple with the aftermath of 9/11, including the lives our nation took in response. It’s important to value the true heroism of the helpers on that day fifteen years ago. We also need to recognize that some need our help now, including those who encounter Islamophobia in our nation and around the world.

People lost their lives on September 11, 2001, and hundreds of thousands lost their lives in the aftermath. All of these lives are valuable — every single one — and their complex stories are valuable — every single one.

Lost parents,
Lost children,
Americans,
Iraqis,
Afghans,
Firefighters,
Hospital personnel,
Soldiers in warfare,
Soldiers in mental health crises post-warfare.

We need a complex story.

Our children need this because they are living the continuation of that story. How will they tell the story? How will they create the future story?

I was born in 1982, less than ten years after the close of the Vietnam War. And while I had great American history teachers in high school, we spent most of our time studying the Revolutionary Period, the Civil War, and World War II. As far as I can remember, we just barely touched upon the Vietnam War period. I have talked about this with people my age who grew up across the country, and their experiences are similar. We did not learn the complexities of this war or its aftermath while we were in school.

It is not only tragic but concerning if students remain ill equipped to understand the period in which they are living. It is dangerous if they remain ill equipped for the period in which they will lead, particularly if the 9/11 stories they do hear function primarily as propaganda.

We must invite complex stories into our consciousness, and we must actively teach them.

Renee Roederer

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