Today is September 11, Patriot Day, and eleven years since two planes crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

That day eleven years ago, I was a junior in college.

I remember running late for class that morning–running late, rushing from my dorm to a building on UGA’s north campus, rushing and wondering why the sidewalks and buses were bustling so much less than usual.

I remember reaching Park Hall, reading a sign that was posted on the door.

A tragedy had occurred. Classes were cancelled.

I remember hurrying back again, back the same way I had come through that eerily quiet campus, back to my dorm to find out what had happened.

There, at Oglethorpe House, the common room was packed with friends and classmates, all crammed onto couches and chairs and the floor, all crowded around the big television.

Together, we watched the news unfold, sharing that same shock and sadness felt by countless others around the country.

I remember this so vividly, now and every year since it happened. It’s a story intertwined with my own.

But my students?

A handful of this year’s 5th graders were tiny babies in the fall of 2001, too small to know what had happened.

The rest of our students were not even born yet.

None of them remember, but most of our fourth and fifth grade students know the story. And after last week, our second and third graders know it, too.

We started our lessons last week by building background information about what happened that day.

Third graders remembered learning about September 11th in the library with me last year.

In second grade, a few knew parts of the big picture–some had seen videos on YouTube or talked about it with their parents. But many of them knew nothing before they came in for last week’s library lesson.

I gave a very simple explanation–that some bad men flew the planes into the Twin Towers because they wanted to hurt people; that all the people on the planes and many of the people in and near the towers died that day; that Patriot Day is a day for us to remember the lives that were lost and the heroes who did their best to save who they could.

The kids were full of questions:

  • Didn’t the bad men know they were going to die, too?
  • Why did they want to hurt people?
  • How many people died?
  • Were there babies or kids on the planes?
  • Did they build the buildings back?

And I did my best to answer them.

Once everyone had a basic understanding of what happened, we were ready to read.

In second grade, we read Mordicai Gerstein’s book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers:

image from indiebound.org

This book is not about what happened on September 11, 2001–at least, not directly.

It’s the story of Philippe Petit, a French tightrope walker who in 1974 defied the laws of both gravity and New York City when he walked, ran, jumped, and danced on a wire between the Twin Towers (which were still under construction at the time).

Students were amazed at Petit’s performance, but they weren’t entirely sure they believed the story was true until we watched this news broadcast from the day of the stunt:

The Twin Towers rose and fell before any of these kids were born, but by reading The Man Who Walked Between the Towers and watching Philipe Petit on the CBS nightly news, the students got a glimpse of these lost landmarks and a greater understanding of their beauty and importance.

Since 3rd graders had more background knowledge and read about Philippe Petit with me last year, I thought they were ready for a story that was more specifically about the 9/11 attacks.

The title I chose for 3rd grade is a picture book by Maira Kalman called Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey:

image from indiebound.org

This book tells the true story of a New York City fireboat built in 1931, from its heyday putting out fires at bustling piers on the Hudson River to its near destruction in the 1990s–until a group of friends decided to buy the boat and fix it up.

These friends never planned to put out fires with the Harvey. They were buying the boat for fun, and it was used for celebrations and school field trips.

Even on the morning of September 11th, 2001, the boat was originally called on to ferry people to safety.

But when firetrucks on land were unable to connect to hydrants due to blocked and broken underground pipes, the John J. Harvey proved its worth in the task it was built to do, pumping about 38 million gallons of water onto the Twin Towers’ burning wreckage over the course of several days.

My third graders were fascinated by this story and excited to meet the Harvey and its real-live crew members in this broadcast from CBS Sunday Morning:

And today, as they remembered the victims and heroes of September 11, 2001, they could add to that memory the heroic efforts of the Harvey and its crew.

When I was finished reading these books to classes, they were snatched up for checkout the very same day, along with several other nonfiction books about the September 11th attacks.

For me, 9/11 is a part of my own memory, my own story.

For my students, it is an event that happened before they were born, a part of history.

Not the distant history of the Revolutionary War or the Underground Railroad, but a still-fresh history that the adults in their lives still remember, the same way many older adults can recount personal stories of segregation and the civil rights movement.

I hope that, for my students, this piece of history has become more than just a date on a timeline–that now, the events of September 11, 2001, have an impact and a meaning that students will remember.

Not just on Patriot Day, but always.

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