One of the challenges I have as a social-studies teacher in a Minnesota high school is to make the subject matter relevant to my students’ lives today.
The Vietnam War seems long ago to them; even the events and meaning of 9/11 are remote. How do I compete with Honey Boo Boo, the Duck Dynasty or the Kardashians? How do I get my students to live beyond the glittering exteriors of their minds and get them focused on their interior light?
I was a commodities trader in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, and survived the attack on the World Trade Center. So on 9/11 every year, I tell my students what that day was like for me — from waking up, to seeing people jumping to their deaths from the stricken towers, to me running from fear and into confusion.
But as the years pass, I find more and more of my students texting or asking to go to the bathroom during my presentation. So as the 12th anniversary of that day approached, I was wondering what I would to do this year. I decided I would talk about race and Trayvon Martin and relate that to 9/11.
How do we move past the initial hate and anger into critical thinking? As Emerson says in his essay on self-reliance, the way to peace is through your own mind.
And I am going to tell them about my trip to Washington, D.C., this past summer with my 15-year-old daughter, Phoebe, and about our visit to the Vietnam Memorial.
I tried to explain to Phoebe my role in that war as a student protester, and how I feel a sense of loss and despair for those years. I tried to explain to her about Ali, and Nixon, and the Kissinger lies, and the My Lai Massacre. It was overload to her. When we got to the wall, we walked it twice and commented on some of the names and the beauty of the wall in its simplicity. And then she just stood back and looked.
There was an African-American man, tall, 60-ish, rubbing and sliding his outstretched arms over the names, touching as many as he could. I walked over to him and put my arm around his shoulder and whispered to him how sorry I was and how messed up this war was.
He put his arm around my shoulder and looked at me with red eyes, and I started to sob on his shoulder. He then consoled me and said it would be all right. He understood. I said thank you.
My daughter didn’t say a word as I walked back to her. I told her that this was the true meaning of race in our country: just an old black guy and an old white guy, both with unfinished work to do.
That is the lesson my students need to learn about race in our country. There is so much unfinished business. George Zimmerman represents the anger and shame in this country. But for someone who (for a nation that) has survived the attack on the World Trade Center, there is also gratitude. I truly believe that most Americans are grateful for all the blessings of this country. We are kind people. We are resilient people. We are forgiving people.
The real lesson of 9/11 is not so much about who did what to whom, but about a loss of our children’s birthright. Our children were robbed of their innocence. There is an invisible cicatrix on their souls that they are unaware of. The Great Depression was that kind of scar that our grandparents carried with them. Our children don’t even know what their scar is about.
Do they understand the loss of personal freedom? The innocence of just getting on a plane and flying somewhere without all the hassles? We use terrorism to justify wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and soon Syria?). I don’t see much resistance from young people to these atrocities. The civil-rights movement got pushed aside as the war in Vietnam escalated. Today, race issues in America are being pushed aside by the pseudo cries of terrorism.
The lesson of 9/11 is not terrorism; it is a lesson of peace and all that we must do to ensure that our children’s scars heal without producing that itch to do battle. Our children need to question what our government does in the name of fighting terrorism. Where are the demonstrations, the outrage over what our country does in the name of peace? Let us not use the fear of terrorism to inspire tacit approval for whatever our government decides is best for us.
Our students need to learn not to fuel the embers of hate and anger but to stoke the flames of compassion. The real lessons of Trayvon Martin and 9/11 are that we are an imperfect nation, but that we must strive to bring happiness and forgiveness to our lives. Otherwise we are destined to continue to scratch that scar until it bleeds.
Ira Sanders teaches social studies at Roseville Area High School.