What do you tell a sixth-grader about 9/11?

"Attack From Above" drawn by Carter at age 6
“Attack From Above” drawn by Carter at age 6

A friend contacted me the other day on behalf of a teacher friend who was trying to figure out what to teach this year on 9/11. It was the first class this middle school teacher would have whose kids were born after 9/11 (2002). Funny to think of a whole generation of kids not ever knowing a pre-9/11 world. This teacher wanted to know what she could say to her students.

An interesting question. What do you tell a sixth-grader about 9/11?

My first instinct was to ask my son, but he wasn’t at all helpful. Teenagers are like that. I thought about when he was a first grader, coming into his first true understanding of the magnitude of what happened. It was different for him because he didn’t have the emotional baggage of grief over the loss of his father in quite the same way – he didn’t remember his dad. So for him, the event was a learning exercise, like learning about volcanoes or dinosaurs – both subjects he learned with a vengeance that year.

Out came the Time-Life magazine with all the pictures of the building in various states of destruction including the horrific ones that of course were the ones that fascinated him the most. When he decided to take the magazine to school for show-and-tell one day, I had to warn the teacher not to let him show those pictures. He talked about the height of the buildings, the level at which the planes hit, and a whole range of facts and figures that were what helped him make sense of the senseless. How do you explain to a kid how big an acre-sized floor is?

A middle school teacher might talk about the world before and after, but would even that make sense to a 12 year-old whose world changes on a daily basis both given their age and the fact that they are surrounded by a world that moves at warp speed?

Honestly, “learning” about 9/11 is like my generation learning about Pearl Harbor or the Holocaust. Both horrifying and abstract. We cannot imagine the worlds that existed before such events, we can barely understand the repercussions since those repercussions are all we know.

And yet, there is this obligation that every year at this time we must dust off 9/11, pull out the memorabilia from the Rubbermaid boxes and pass it on to a new generation. Or remember. Or try not to forget. Or learn. Or something. Anything, but forget.

I am told that 60 Minutes ran a piece on Sunday about the memorial museum in NYC and that Arron’s face appears with a group of faces. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve been asked if I sent anything in for the museum, or recorded my kids speaking. I am obviously a crappy 9/11 widow, because I haven’t sent anything in. Nope. I have become completely apathetic about 9/11. Maybe it’s a coping strategy, or maybe it’s that I would prefer not to remember that day in my life. What it has become for me is a day to reflect on how far I’ve come.

I look back with sadness on that woman with two small kids, trying to figure it all out, messily trying to pick up the pieces. I shake my head in awe, wondering how she coped, how she managed to raise those two kids into some pretty awesome almost-adults.

I guess in many ways, 9/11 was a beginning of a new life for all of us. Some of us remember the life that once was, some of us don’t.

Maybe the reality is that it can only be seen by those select few who still remember. To a whole younger generation it will be just another chapter in a history book, an event that gets dragged out year after year, a little more tattered and torn, a little less color each time.

And yet, no matter how tight I try to pack it all away in that Rubbermaid box, for me, as for so many people, this day twelve years ago is a moment seared into our very DNA, indelible. It’s one of those blips in history, like Pearl Harbor that I imagine must be so big, it can be seen from space.






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  1. Sarah Rotering September 11, 2013 at 3:05 am

    Well Ms. “crappy 9/11 widow” I think you handle things beautifully.

  2. Candice September 11, 2013 at 9:24 am

    What Sarah said. 🙂 Much live to you, my friend.

  3. Anne Marie September 11, 2013 at 11:43 am

    Your words are so beautifully written, I can feel them. As I search my memory and DNA for the events of that day and all that has come afterward, I am grateful you are a part of my afterward. Our friendship, borne of loss is cherished. Take good care today.

  4. Abigail - Site Author September 11, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    Aww. Thanks you guys… 🙂 Glad this widow thing brought us all together. You are good peeps.

  5. Melissa September 11, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    You may be a “crappy 9/11 widow” but your book was my lifeline. Thinking of you today.

    1. Abigail - Site Author September 11, 2013 at 6:44 pm

      What a wonderful compliment Melissa! Thank you.

  6. Ana Gschwend September 11, 2013 at 6:51 pm

    I’ve been thinking about you today. Last December, I had the privilege of listening to your book through the online digital library of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and listening to it being read by a woman who put such feeling into what she was reading… including a slight Spanish accent for your former nannie, Martha. I used to live in the states–in Virginia, not far from Washington and the Pentagon–and moved here with my mom two months and eight days before this big day. My mom was at a wedding in Ontario at the time (we live in Manitoba) and I was a 9-year-old fourth grader, just starting to fully realize that there was more to the world than I thought there was.
    I remember this day, twelve years ago, so well–hearing newscasts telling of the attack (first on the radio while on the way to a cross-country run with my class as part of a PE unit–when I heard the sirens, I remember initially thinking that it was merely a radio drama and brushing it out of my mind), and then back at my aunt’s house–I was staying with her and my uncle–and getting caught up in the tragedy and in what followed after it. I cried over not knowing when my mom would get home, her flight home having been grounded. She too had cried that day for the many people affected by this devastating blow to such a mighty country.
    Since then, I think at least a little about the events of that day each year at this time. I listen to the radio for a mention of the anniversary. I’ll go onto the internet, using my talking computer, and look for news stories about how people are marking the anniversary. I, too, want never to forget. I don’t obsess about it as much as I used to, but I want never to forget. America has a special place in my heart, and we have many friends, family members and memories from our time there. Listening to your book helped me to understand the big impact the tragedy had on the attack’s victims. How courageous of you to raise your children on your own and to be able to grieve the loss of your beloved husband, while still comforting them when they were upset for one reason or another. It was obvious that the loss of your husband had deeply affected your daughter. What a comfort you were, and I’m sure still are, to her when the pain of missing him would make her cry. You’d mentioned some times where that happened in your book. Maybe someday, you could write a sequel?
    Thank you and your publisher for giving the CNIB permission to record the book into an audio format for visually impaired people like me, so that we too can read it and better appreciate the highs and lows you went through after that dreadful day. We may not all be directly affected by 9/11, but there are many of us who, like you, will never forget.

    1. Abigail - Site Author September 11, 2013 at 7:16 pm

      Wow! Thank you for your wonderful story. It’s awesome that you were able to find the audiobook. Did you know that it was me reading it? Truth be told, I do a lousy Spanish accent, not to mention a French Canadian one. Oy!
      I am so glad my story resonated for you. It’s really cool to know that it can appeal to a whole new generation of readers. Sounds like you are only a few years older than Olivia.
      I would love to write a sequel someday. I guess you could say this blog is sort of that sequel. I have poured out lots of trials and tribulations as well as joys in these posts.
      Thanks for not forgetting. It is appreciated.

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