I am a high school teacher. This summer as I was preparing lessons, I was trying to figure out how I would teach my students about 9/11. As a former commodity trader from New York, I worked at the World Trade Center and fled like most New Yorkers did that day as the towers crumbled.
Every year I have been talking to my students about my experiences surviving the attack on the World Trade Center, but this year I am going to focus on “their” surviving the attack.
What does 9/11 mean to them?
Most will be too young to remember, so instead we will talk about what is the meaning of America in their lives. What has become of America in the 14 years since 9/11? What lessons have we learned; what paths have we taken; what dreams have been fulfilled? Sure, a lot has happened: We have a black president; gays can marry; pot is legalized in some states. But overall, are we better off? Racial tension still exists; hatred lingers; poverty still flourishes, and most kids in the future will not be better off than their parents are now.
I was inspired to do this as I visited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum this summer. It was difficult for me, and reflective, as the water cascading then emptying into the bottom pool turned me introspective. I walked around looking for my friend’s dad’s name etched into the stone. I leaned against the memorial and sobbed, not only for my friend’s dad, but for the capricious reminder of how ephemeral life can be. Then I saw something that made me cringe. Standing a few yards from me were a mother and daughter taking a selfie. I don’t have a problem taking a picture of the memorial, maybe being in the background of the picture, but there is something contemptible about taking a selfie. The silly exaggerated smiles that scream “look at me!” Maybe they just don’t realize what the memorial is really about. It is neither a tourist attraction, nor an amusement ride.
It’s a burial ground for more than 3,000 Americans of all races and religions. Ordinary people, unsung heroes, a pregnant woman, innocent people going about their daily business, who never made it home to their loved ones that day. A reminder for a scarred country, a tribute to a country that never forgets its gladiators, of a country steeped in empathy.
I am proposing that 9/11 become a national holiday. We need to take a day off from work, school and play to reflect on that tragic day in American history. It should be a day to honor the dead, and to cherish how precious and transient our lives are. It should be a holiday of action and of doing.
Things we need to do to celebrate and honor 9/11:
1) Hug somebody. Heck, hug as many people you can today and tell them how grateful you are to be able to hug them.
2) Celebrate and feel proud to be an American. For all the imperfections our country has, it beats whatever is second.
3) Stand up and confront the enemy. Even if the enemy is within. Challenge our congressmen who pass laws without actually reading the law. Call out our president for making deals with terrorist countries that jeopardize our future (and for leaving our prisoners behind). Raise our voices to those groups (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) that show no regard to human life. Search our souls to understand how we affect the world around us and what we can do to promote respect, tolerance and gratitude.
4) Listen, hear and act on the cries of those who need our help. As Maya Angelou has said, “Be the rainbow for someone else.”
The terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, was one of the most senseless, deleterious mass killings of the 21st century. We need to honor the diversity of life that those victims represented.
This brings me back to my class lesson for the day. I will briefly tell them about my day. How I ran, scared that I would never see my family again. How I became angry at a group of people I did not know. I will not talk about blame. I will be mindful of where we are today at this moment in time. We will have a Socratic seminar on America and what it means to be an American. We will read articles on race, empathy, Iran, and then through questions and listening, we will discuss what is going on. I don’t expect resolution. I don’t expect agreement. I do hope my students will walk away thinking about their world and the role they play in it. And that might just lead to a new meaning to “selfie.”
Ira Sanders teaches social studies at Roseville Area High School.