Teaching my Kid about September 11

By Erika Grumet

Editor’s Note: Readers of The Ivory Tower Boiler Room know that on Monday, we typically publish our Big Think, an essay giving a perspective on the month’s topic. But then in the days leading up to this important anniversary, Erika wrote the following and we decided just to go with it. Sometimes you have to be flexible, and, as you’ll see, the piece does revolve around the themes of books and education.

National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial in Arlington, Va. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley)

September 11, 2001 was a bright, clear, sunny morning. Washington DC doesn’t let you forget it was built on a swamp, and it was a morning where I remember appreciating the impending change of seasons, and feeling that the oppressive summer humidity was fading. There wasn’t anything all that unusual about the day. Just little things–I was taking a call from home that morning instead of going to the office, because, while I liked my job, I was also searching for something else. Labor Day had been the previous week, and I’d been out of town, at a family wedding. I’d traveled by airplane, too, not having any idea how much things would be changing just a few days later. I’d returned home pretty sure that the relationship I was in was over, but not really ready to make the final decisions and moves on how to end things.

I took advantage of the decision to take the call from home and slept in a little bit, but I finally drifted downstairs at about 8:30 to get ready for my phone call. I sat on the couch with a cup of tea, a cat and the paperwork I needed for the meeting, and shuffled through what was in front of me. It was quiet, the big city kind of quiet. Suddenly my boyfriend comes racing down the stairs yelling “put CNN on! Put CNN on! What channel is CNN?” We grabbed the remote control and put the TV on. Stunned and frightened, my heart racing, my stomach sour, I wondered which building was on fire–my father was in one of those two buildings. I grabbed the phone and immediately began trying to reach my mother’s office–she would normally have been on her way to work around the time the first plane hit the North Tower. I had no way of knowing if she’d heard what happened–she didn’t have a cell phone, and the probability of her having the radio in the car on or off was about 50-50. Call after call after call to her office went unanswered. I called the main desk in her department… still no answer. I finally called a co-worker of hers, who answered and told me that my mother was at home, trying to find out about my father. I called my mother at home. Her voice was shaky. I’m sure mine was, too. We talked briefly, I let her know I’d be home and not in the office, and we hung up, without acknowledging the looming possibility that something had happened to my father. It didn’t matter–we both knew what was possible. I called my office, let them know I’d be staying home and away from the phone, and that my father was in the Towers so I’d call them later. The second tower was hit. I have no idea what the actual sequence of these three events is… time was immeasurably slow, but racing by. I know at some point I raced into the bathroom and threw up, the sour, burning, empty stomach, painful, retching kind. My boyfriend’s mother called. My boyfriend’s father and stepmother called. That’s when the buildings collapsed. I screamed. His stepmother asked why I was screaming, in a tone that clearly suggested I was overreacting. It was hours before we knew my father was safe, some of the most agonizing hours of my life. That night our electricity went out. I’ve never been one who copes well in the dark; I have terrible night vision to begin with, and terrible things have happened to me in the dark, but that night it was even more frightening than usual, sitting in the dark, not sure if it was just a normal electrical issue or if it was another terrorist attack. 

Even a day like that ends, and then another, and then I remember standing in the shower on Thursday evening, going through the motions of getting ready to go out with my girlfriend. We went into Georgetown to a Mediterranean restaurant that we liked, having decided it was extra important that we were out there showing that we understood that extremism is not the same thing as Islam, knowing that this business and others would probably be dealing with serious economic losses. Not too long after that, I drove out of the city, along a highway that takes you past the Pentagon. I couldn’t easily see the huge hole ripped in the side, but I remember being struck by how brightly lit the Pentagon was. It was surrounded by banks of floodlights. Those lights were a symbol for the ways things would never feel okay again, the ways everything that had been “normal” would now be topsy-turvy.

The initial shock of the first day faded quickly, to be replaced by a fog. It was days, weeks even, before I finally felt like I wasn’t wading through a fog as I went on with the motions of daily life, and all the shock came back to me a few months later. As I drove back to Long Island for Thanksgiving, along a route that had always included a view of the Twin Towers before, now there was a gap, like a child missing their front teeth.

As a Gen-Xer, I grew up with the constant threat of mass extinction overhead. The ever-looming shadows of nuclear war, “Just say ‘no’” drug education, because if you do drugs you’ll die, and if you have sex you’ll die. Everything was about our doom. I remember news stories about terrorism when I was growing up, but it was something that happened “somewhere else.” “Terrorism,” in my memory was mostly used to describe actions taken by various groups in the Middle East, and in spite of the kinds of things going on in parts of Central and South America or Europe or Asia, it still seemed the word specifically referred to action in one region. I was in my mid-twenties when 9/11 happened, and still, suspicion focused on the Middle East. The first first fingers pointed were at Muslims. For years before September of 2001, it seemed that whenever there was any kind of terrorist action aimed at the US, the first fingers pointed where at Muslims. Terrorism though, is about dangerous extremism, and not about religion or race or any other specific identity. Terrorism can come from anyone, gender, race, faith, nationality–it’s about radical adherence to dogma. That same kind of dogma is present in the way we learn about certain groups of people, whether that’s in school, the media, or some other source. The things that come out as our microaggressions, and become woven into the fabric of our speech, our thinking. We have work to do to unlearn those things, but what to do in the meantime when you have to teach someone else?

When my oldest kid was around six or seven years old, we had a book about famous buildings. My kids loved looking at the buildings, seeing what was inside, and asking questions–there was something about the guillotine that really excited them. The conversations about architecture and engineering were really interesting, too. That book spurred so many fascinating conversations. I loved listening to the kids talk about Notre Dame. (They studied French as well as English in elementary school. When we outgrew charming malapropisms about “the wife-el tower” it meant beautifully pronounced French words in the middle of sentences sometimes.) New York, however, fascinated them, more than anything. They were familiar with it… we visited. New York was where my parents were, where they got “up to the top of a very tall building,” (although I think they remember the trash can on fire even more than the view from the building.) 

One day, I had my oldest alone in the car, and we decided to stop at the Starbucks drive thru for a little treat. My kids always had books in the car, and after I placed our order, while we were still in line, the voice from the back seat rose up and asked me “Mama, what was there before the Freedom Tower?” I paused, swallowed hard and explained that there had been two buildings called The Twin Towers or The World Trade Center. Nothing more than that, it was an honest and complete answer to the question. I knew that one day I’d have to say more than that, I just wasn’t prepared for that day to be the day. But the back seat voice piped up again to inquire about how the buildings had been knocked down to make room for the Freedom Tower. I took a deep breath, swallowed again and said, “It’s a scary, scary story. I will tell you the story now but only if you decide it’s okay to hear it.” I emphasized that it was okay to say “No,” or “not today,” but it was also ok to start listening and then decide it was too much and that we needed to stop and come back later. I would tell the story anytime; it didn’t have to be now. My kid, however, has always been brave, and insisted I continue. And so I proceeded to talk about how some people who didn’t like things about the United States, about how we lived, and about the freedoms we have, and the countries we try to help and how we help them wanted to try and convince us to be more like them-to behave the way they did, to believe what they did, and to not help out in some of the places that we were helping. I went on to explain that the people who did that thought the right way to convince the United States to do that was to do terrible, horrible, very big and scary things to us, and that they convinced some people to fly airplanes into the buildings that had been there and knock them down. (More on that explanation in a moment.) I used the word “terrorist.” That word was okay. But it was so important to me to make sure that if I had to introduce the idea of terrorism into the world of my elementary-school-aged kid, it was absolutely essential to make clear that this act of terrorism wasn’t about religion. Our beloved babysitter at the time was a Muslim woman. One of my kiddo’s best buddies is Muslim. There were, and are, important people in our lives who are Muslims, and my kids needed to understand that all terrorists aren’t Muslims and all Muslims aren’t terrorists. And the next question wasn’t really any easier. “Did kids die?” I had to be honest. I had to tell the truth, no matter how hard it was. And I did. I didn’t talk about my father, and how he had survived the day, or about how scary it was, or what it felt like in Washington DC. I tried to keep it essential and factual, without frightening the incredible child who was asking. I tried to make sure that extremism as a behavior, no matter what the extreme belief was, was emphasized as the problem. I hope I did a good job… I think so, because a few years later, when a third grade teacher showed a film with a strong, anti-Muslim bias, my kiddo spoke up. (The teacher that year was a piece of work… within the first two weeks of school, she tried to argue over the definition of “segregation,” telling my 8 year old that dividing children by gender so they could be assigned to lunch tables wasn’t segregation. My 8 year old was absolutely right on both issues… it is segregation to divide the children by gender and showing anti-Muslim-biased videos in school, or anywhere, is ridiculous.)

How do you emphasize the idea that extremism is at the heart of the issue–not religion, not race–when they’re just too young to appreciate those grey areas? It can’t be a one-time conversation, for sure, and there has to be honesty about terrorism; that anyone can hold extremist beliefs, and that therein lies the danger. So instead of piling on every nuance in that first conversation, it’s about laying foundations for critical thinking, and allowing questions to be asked, sometimes hard questions. And it’s about teaching children very early on that everything they read, hear and see isn’t going to always be accurate, so they have to learn to question, to verify, and to choose carefully the information they are going to trust. So many of these difficult conversations change over time. Obviously they change because a child understands more, knows more about the world. But when the educator’s vision changes, the education changes, too. In the last twenty years, what we’ve seen, what we’ve learned, what we’ve lived through… it’s all changed us. It’s changed how we interact with the media, and how we trust the news. I think we’re all a little more cynical, a little more jaded. The ethics of intervention, the practicality of intervention in the long list of places we’ve invaded or occupied or meddled in recently: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and further in the past, like Nicaragua or Vietnam, sit with us differently now, and as you revisit your own feelings about those events, and challenge the things you learned growing up, it’s okay to revisit the conversations you’ve had with others about them… especially children… especially your own.

The events of 9/11 changed the world for all of us, whether we were old enough to remember the day or not. It’ s not a day or an event that we can stop talking about–it’s a cultural touchstone, a “where were you when…” moment for multiple generations. My parents told the stories of where they were when JFK was shot. My children hear the stories of where I was when the Challenger exploded. But the other “where were you when…” stories they hear from me are not only tragic stories, but violent stories. If I’m trying to create a more loving, kinder, more peaceful world, how do I do that? The only choice I have is education–to tell the stories of violence, and to tell them also about the mistakes we’ve made by not laying foundations for respect and compassion, the mistakes we’ve made by promoting false patriotism instead of real patriotism, by being unwilling to see the mistakes that we’ve made, or to recognize the damage that imperialism has caused. Books open doors to some of these hard conversations, even with children. I probably wouldn’t have brought up ideas like “terrorism” at that point, but that book in the hands of my child, opened the door for a really difficult conversation, and we did the delicate dance of giving enough information, but not too much, answering the questions but leaving room for more. There’s a saying of Maria Montessori: “Establishing peace is the work of education. All politics can do is keep us out of war.” I’ve written before about how I don’t think of myself as a teacher. But obviously, I know that parenting is, in so many ways, teaching kids how to be themselves, and how to become grown ups. It’s hard work for us to teach ourselves, to learn for ourselves how to confront the right or wrong-ness of things we’ve been taught, of the bias in the history we’ve learned, of the things in our legacy that were immoral, wrong, unethical. We have to do this in order to empower our children to create the kind of world we want them to live in. And almost always, that begins with talking about hard things. 

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