It’s been 16 years since I ran from the fear of the crumbling of the World Trade Center into the confusion of my new America. I left New York and Wall Street, and moved to Minnesota. I seek comfort and salvation now as a teacher in a school outside of St. Paul.
So I wonder, as I have in the past, how I would talk to my students about 9/11.
It’s so far removed from their consciousness; like the Vietnam War, it’s ancient history. It is buried in their unconscious and only surfaces in other unaware shapes and forms.
This year I decided I would talk about how to find meaning in our lives:
How to impress upon my students the need not to remain neutral to what is going on in our country. How not to expect the government to solve our problems, but how we as individuals need to look into ourselves and take responsibility for our choices.
A lot of my students don’t believe that their choices matter. They think that they’re destined to live the lives into which they were born. This is a cultural and societal trap we must free them from.
How do I explain to them that the decaying odor of anger in our country, the putrid smell of prejudice and the miasma of hate in our country are related to that day?
We have stopped talking to one another. We don’t call; we text. And now we even use fewer words in our texts and replace those words with the shorthand of emoji.
How is it we have hundreds of friends on social media, but feel so alone when the lights go out?
We gossip; we can’t take more than five minutes of self-reflection before we search for something else to entertain us. We are not seeking internal truth, but a glossy exterior.
I will talk to them about their inner passions and how not to fall into the trap of external rage. We should march in step because we have compassion and not a blinding rage. We need to bond from our strengths, not from the weaknesses people see in us.
Our government diverts us from the real issues and uses terrorism to block us from the real crises in our country. The prejudice and resentment of people have transformed Americans into us against them.
So the terrorists of 9/11 have won. Terrorists win when we live in fear; when we lash out at people because they are perceived to be different from us; when we focus on the next attack and take hateful steps to prevent it from coming, be it from North Korea or the streets of Charlottesville.
The building of President Donald Trump’s wall needs a discussion. The police shooting of unarmed black men needs a discussion; same-sex marriage needs a discussion, and the list goes on. But 9/11 has caused us to choose sides. I’m right and you are wrong. Call the other side names, label them and distance them from you. We need to honor the disenfranchised and recognize that working-class whites feel disenfranchised also. “Black lives matter” should read “black lives matter also,” to be inclusive.
We must stop treating our college students as if the outside world will be paved for them. We must teach them instead that they need to listen and question what they hear and not be afraid to hear opposing views. We must not confuse the media reporting the news with the media’s agenda.
The terrorists have won long after the collapse of the twin towers. They are winning today.
So I will tell my students stories about this great country of ours (even with its flaws), and will give them narrative. I will ask them how they define meaning in their lives, but mostly I will ask them questions about how they see themselves in our world today. They are good kids with kind hearts. Most important, I will listen.
I will point out the imperfections in me and in my country. How I am a flawed human with frailties and weaknesses.
I will share with them how I am fortunate to have met the most wonderful woman in my life, and that with her kindness and grace we will be married soon. I will tell them that you always get a second chance to find meaning in your life.
We must forgive not for our country’s sake, but we must forgive for our own sake, to move on.
Ira Sanders teaches social studies at Roseville Area High School.