I try not to dwell on 9/11 too much whenever it comes up on the calendar. It feels like an old scab that always reopens the wound unless I stop picking at it. And there is a vexing dissonance when my social media posts flood me with images of bald eagles and Old Glory, along with demanding memes to be grateful and patriotic. Often the posts enforce an extreme nationalistic agenda that runs counter to the personal, complex relationship I have with his country.
But this year, high schools across the nation welcome a freshman class born after the 9/11 attacks. Many of the student body have no personal ties to 9/11 and are too young to grasp how monumental it was, how we have ravaged entire regions because of it, how racism and Islamophobia billowed from the void of the Twin Towers and choke our country like smog.
Like Pearl Harbour, or MLK’s assassination, 9/11 can easily become just another day in history to an age group that has attention spans as short as a Snap or Tweet, and yet as teachers, we are often given an imperative to make this day relevant to their lives.
We were encouraged to integrate 9/11 into our lessons on Friday, though the idea of students having to watch videos of the burning towers, writing poems, or gratitude reflections for an entire school day seemed a bit heavy-handed. But how can educators best teach this day? We wield tremendous influence in shaping narrative and attitudes for the next generation, and we don’t always wield it well.
I wonder what my uncle would think, seeing my family’s gloomy faces, or the angry ones of ‘bleeding heart patriots’, when he’d lived his entire life trying to make people laugh. He was often irreverent, inviting us after church for barbies and telling us poop jokes whilst showing off his latest gadget finds.
I wonder how he’d feel about how our country has used the day of his death to alienate entire groups of minorities, when he was an immigrant himself and had colleagues from all races and religions. He was polite enough never to discuss politics and religion—most of my fam were too intensely conservative to have any meaningful discourse in either—but his death, and consequently his memory, is now ingrained deeply into our divisive racial politics. To best honour his memory, I need to translate this day into something meaningful and not just a trite Do Now to check off.
I admit that I somewhat copped out of the heavy emotional lessons some of my colleagues may have attempted. I refused to play videos of the burning towers, or show that iconic image of the man plunging to his death to escape the flames. I just personally would not have been able to replay those scenes over and over again and remain composed for each section of students I taught. Plus, there was no point in raking up the past, especially if the objective was just to make our students grateful for their freedom. I needed a better reason why.
After all, gratitude is never learnt in abstract terms. It cannot be passed down through lectures and PowerPoints. People, especially teenagers, do not feel grateful for their freedoms unless they come to experience their potential and actual loss. And it is especially difficult to feel grateful in a country that has yet to address its deep fear and loathing of people of colour. People like my students. People like me.
Thinking about my possible lesson, I recalled all the times I would find myself in lower Manhattan, coming out of the PATH train station that faced the pools. I often gazed blankly over the two sunken footprints of the original towers, and the waterfalls cascading their tears along its banks. I tended to run my fingers over the black panels as I circled around as if I were on a miniature hajj, until I rested on my uncle’s name. The memorial has always been a place of quiet contemplation for me, even as I watch gaggles of tourists crowd around the memorial, giggling as they attempt to take the best selfie. The sight may seem jarring, but I can’t fault them, since my own family likes to do the same. Like I said, my Uncle was an irreverent gadget geek, and he’d want nothing less than us taking a photo with him using the latest tech, laughing with life.
The memorials were metaphors, symbols that each of us read differently. If the memorial, with the Freedom Tower rising between its fallen predecessors, symbolised growth from grief, why couldn’t we welcome the clueless tourists as much as the weeping widower placing flowers on his wife’s name? After all, when the memorials are touted as a prime tourist must-see, we must accept natural tourists behaviours.
So I taught my lesson on metaphors—this is English class, after all—pulling up the history of the WTC Memorial Contest, all the design statements and mock-ups of the eight finalists. I had my students study the designers’ visions, and their intended message with their structures (ELA RI.11-12.7, for you Common Core nerds). We analysed common design elements, and why certain elements recurred amongst the various designs. We then segued into a discussion whether every visitor would grasp the metaphors, and extended it by reflecting on what 9/11 symbolises for various pockets of our society. Our experiences colour our understanding, and as much as I want to believe in the uniting power of 9/11’s tragedy, the truth doesn’t dwell in naiveté.
Those discussions highlighted the fact that this year’s anniversary coincides with the unsettled debates over racial inequality, police brutality, and all the bigotry that Hillary Clinton has lumped in a ‘basket of deplorables‘. In this context, 9/11 is more than just a visual shocker of crashing concrete, but a complex symbol of multiple, contradictory narratives woven into our student’s stories.
9/11 was a catalyst for protecting American values and freedoms. We have sent men and women into war for them. And yet on a day we are told to be grateful for those values and freedoms, gratitude becomes nothing more than a political silencing tool.
We have Colin Kaepernick inspiring fellow athletes and ‘mini-Kaepernicks‘ to peacefully protest during the national anthem, inciting rage from self-proclaimed patriots for such blatant disrespect for the flag, and of veterans by proxy. The rage is charged even more on days like this, when the normative cultural response is to wave the flag proudly, whether in physical or digital manifestations.
There is rage for the apparent lack of gratitude, as if the best way to value our freedoms is to censor ourselves from exercising them. Others may argue that protesting is fine, but to do so during the anthem is not the time nor place. But protests are never to be held when it is convenient to those in power. Righteous indignation is supposed to make us uncomfortable; it is supposed to inconvenience us; it is supposed to challenge our deep-seated beliefs. How else can we effect change if we are comfortable with our deeply imperfect system?
9/11 makes us angry. The loss of innocents should incite rage. But rage must be properly channelled, to take that volatile energy into productive use. It is the difference between a demolition and a bomb.
Where is the rage for a society that would rather show greater respect for a piece of cloth than for the very men and women we have sent to die, or come back wounded with inadequate health care? Where is the rage for a flag that represents values unequally given or even denied to disenfranchised minorities? How can we teach Mahatma Gandhi’s and MLK Jr’s revolutions and non-violent protests and fail to respect the growing political voices of our pupils?
Those who can stand with unequivocal pride at a contradictory symbol and a racially charged anthem display less patriotism than privilege.
Let’s be frank. America is great. America is beautiful. America is at its most racially sensitive and socially progressive state yet. But America is far from upholding those truths that were supposed to hold self-evident. Until every citizen and immigrant who comes to our shores enjoys equal opportunity and access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it is imperative we teach our students to demand their realisation, that we teach them all the tools and powers they possess to make that change, change to cherish all lives, including Black Lives; to strive for liberty, no matter our origins; to pursue happiness, without oppression.
So rather than bicker over sitting or standing for a flag; or running zero-sum contests on who is most patriotic on a given day; or writing half-hearted gratitude notes for a grade or a Like, we should be fighting for progress, as one nation, indivisible. Our students can worry less about being shot, and more about building the next big thing my Uncle would have loved to have owned.