My oldest daughter, Grace, was born on Dec. 7, 2000. I remember calling my grandparents from the hospital with the exciting news. My grandfather said “Congratulations, she is a beauty, I’m sure, but it is a pity about her birthday.” His reaction surprised and confused me. Both of my grandfathers served in World War II. Dec. 7 was Pearl Harbor Day. It was the day that everything changed for their generation. They lived it. I knew that when Grace was born, but I didn’t understand what Dec. 7 meant to them until Sept. 11, 2001.
Without question, I am sure we all can remember where we were on Sept. 11. I was teaching English at Sidney High School. I had a class full of ninth graders when I saw one of my best friend’s, Lori, at my classroom door. She was our media specialist and she motioned me over and said “Have you seen the news?” I had not.
This was before smart phones and instant updates. Before Twitter or texting. I had not seen the news. With tears in her eyes, she shared that a plane hit the World Trade Center in New York. At this point in time, we did not yet know that it happened on purpose. We did not know that we were under attack. There was speculation, but no confirmation.
I remember standing in the hallway considering how to approach my ninth graders. Should I address this tragedy as it unfolded without facts or understanding or should I stick to my lesson plan? How would I help students to understand something that I did not understand? I had no answers, only questions. If I recall, I had 15 minutes left before the change of class. On Sept. 11, 2001, in a hallway at Sidney High School, with limited information, I made a conscious decision to walk back into my classroom and continue with the lesson plan I had that day. I still don’t know if it was the right decision.
My stomach was in knots, but I remember thinking that the whole world could be falling apart and if nothing else, I could at least attempt to preserve the last 15 minutes of innocence that my ninth graders might salvage. When the bell rang for the change of class I bolted to the library for more information.
By this time it was becoming clear that we were under attack.
My next class of students arrived with so many questions about what was happening. They were 10th graders taking advanced English and government. They were frightened and frantic for information. They demanded to watch the news coverage.
I recall a student asserting “this is our history happening before us. We need to watch the news!” I was stunned by her confidence and her commitment to understand the events as they unravelled. She was extremely bright and rational and able to explain her stance. By the time we started following the news coverage, we were distraught to discover that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center and more attacks were anticipated. Planes were being grounded. Fear was palpable.
I sat with 17 tenth graders as the first tower fell – speechless. I had no explanations, no frame of reference, and no idea what to do next. The room was silent. I hugged my students as they left my room that day. It was the only thing left that I could do to make any of them feel safe.
The weeks after 9/11 proved to be difficult as well. They were laced with grieving and questions and uncertainty and fear. It was the first time during my teaching career that I realized how incredibly helpless it felt to be an adult with no answers. It was the first time, but certainly not the last. In the 20 years that have passed between then and now there have been many events that I could not explain or frame for students. What my students have taught me is that they don’t always need for the adults in their lives to have all of the answers. They just need adults to show up and listen as they try to organize their own thoughts. They need us to point out that the world is bigger than any one event and still encourage them to respect and revere the relationship that others might have to their lived experiences. They need us to remind them that sometimes understanding only comes with time and sometimes it doesn’t come at all.
The students walking the halls of Sidney High School today were born a few years after Sept. 11, 2001.They have no memories of their own from that day, only what they have read about in history books and nonfiction articles or heard from others. They are living their own history and trying to piece together their own opinions of the world. In so many ways their world is more complicated than mine was when I was their age. They have so much more information to sift through and what seems like less time to gather an understanding. Many of their opinions are forged by the news that they are served on Twitter or other social media platforms. It can be a dark and confusing place at times.
I made a conscious decision about a year ago to stop anchoring my opinions of the world from any one news platform or social media app. What I was reading online was not a reflection of what I was seeing in my life. While many platforms serve a purpose, I know that they certainly won’t capture the beautiful complications that elevate our human experience.
I encourage my students to factor other variables into their developing understanding of the world. I encourage them to look at the people right in front of them. I challenge them to do field research of their own. If they do, they will see strangers smiling at each other as they walk out of Kroger, a woman hustling to open a door for a man carrying boxes of supplies into High Grounds, children squealing with joy as they play with friends outside. They will see students cheering for each other on a Friday night, a baby reaching for his mother with a smile so wide that his cheeks puff out, and a kid sharing his lunch with a friend.
I know this because I saw all of this in one day in this town. The vast majority of the things I observe give me hope. I am convinced that we all have more in common than what separates us. As my students will confirm, I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I am grateful that I get the chance to be a part of their journey. I am not discouraged that I am the adult in the room without all of the answers. I am encouraged by the way I see young people keeping faith in eachother and in the future.
On this Sept. 11 may the memories of all of those we lost bring us more appreciation for our neighbors. May it remind us to be better to each other, to thank those on the front lines who risk it all to help others. May we hold our families closer and give each other the grace to look to the future with hope.
Sara Olding is a teacher, writer, and mother. She lives in Sidney with her husband Bryan and their children Grace, Genevieve and CJ Olding. She continues to work and study with the Ohio Writing Project through Miami University.