This semester, I am teaching Religions in America at UW-Oshkosh. Rather than simply being a survey course of religions, the course specifically addresses how these religions manifest in and interact with American culture.
I debated long and hard whether or not I would cover Islam on Sept 11. I don’t want to be inflammatory, and certainly my syllabus doesn’t nicely flow with Islam on Sept 11.
However, if the session is about how Islam interacts with American culture, you can’t help but talk very significantly about Sept 11, so why not do it on that day? (One student asked if it was planned or coincidence. She complimented me doing it deliberately as “smart.” Go me.)
A significant portion of the hour was actually sharing memories of 9/11/01. At this point, my average student was in first grade in 2001. In a few years, my students won’t remember the event at all. All they will know are pictures and sound bites, the same way most people today only know the Holocaust (while my students can recite the usual numbers, they are, on average, quite ignorant of the real horror of it).
I wanted them to understand why people were SO angry and in such need of a scapegoat. It wasn’t just the death of 3000 people; it was helplessness. We didn’t know how many more planes there were or what they would target. Skyscrapers across the country were evacuated and US airspace closed.
We didn’t even know how many were dead. The Twin Towers held 50,000 employees and were traversed by 200,000 people daily. At the time, we had no idea how many people evacuated in the 45 minutes between when the south tower was hit and when it collapsed. Mayor Giuliani afterward ordered 10,000 body bags as part of recovery efforts.
And the average person could do very little beyond donate blood and donate to charity. Some people needed a target to force that frustrations upon.
As an Aside: I’m just frustrated I don’t even get to donate my O- blood, because living in Britain apparently makes me a biohazard to the blood supply.
What we saw on our TVs was almost indescribable. The newscasters choked up when the first tower fell, trying to find words for what was really a very simple event: a 100 story building in the middle of Manhattan had collapsed. At work, we stared at the TV dumbfounded.
Want to really remember how we felt? Google “9/11 falling people” under “video.” Imagine, for a moment, how terrifying a situation must be for dozens of people to willingly jump to their deaths. For me, those are the images most seared into my memory as footage was replayed played over and over and over that first day. Still, watching the footage again 13 years later is twice as awful as what’s in my head. Apparently, time has dulled the memory.
I want my students to understand that level of despair and helplessness we felt that day so they can better understand what has shaped the lives of Muslim-Americans since that day.
I got to learn something from my students as well. Many students first heard about it at school, even though on average they were only about seven years old. A couple students related how televisions installed in the school were turned to the news so the children could watch history unfold.
Which means classrooms of 1st graders had their eyes glued to the TV sets when the first tower collapsed.
I remember how damaging that was for me to watch it, and I was 25. I remember newscasters trying not the cry. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for a child to witness, particularly without preparation.
Some students had the events announced by teachers. Some overheard teachers talking and then, of course, spread it to every kid they knew. Some had a parent take them home early. Others remember a classroom of screaming kids.
There was, however, another experience that I hope isn’t forgotten either, and that how people pulled together that day: the people who opened their homes and businesses to people stranded on the island for the night; the flotilla of private boats that ferried people off the island; the 3000 free rides given by cabbies that day; the day care workers who stole shopping carts to ferry their tiny charges out of the area, and the men who literally gave the shirts off their backs to help shield the kids from all the dust in the air. That was as much a part of 9/11 as anything else.
Featured image at top (c) USAtoday.com