Today, I bring you a photograph of a local 9/11 memorial and, below, a song – “I’m Proud to Be an American” – the song that we heard over the intercom every year to commemorate this devastating day. That first year, I don’t believe it was played until several days afterwards, but once it was, it was played every morning for a very long time.
I was a sixth-grade teacher then, my first year with a homeroom, and it was day four of the school year. As I recall, I had a 15-minute homeroom and taught one 45-minute block, followed by my prep. School started at 8:30 back then, so it was roughly 9:30 before I went into the hallway. By this time, both planes had hit the the Towers, and information was starting to filter down to staff. Each grade, of course, was finding out the information at different times, depending on their own prep or lunch or duty periods.
One of the first things we were asked to do was to send down any student records we had received so far. In those days, we didn’t have instant access to student records on the computer in programs like Genesis; instead, we were slowly collecting the information from the students each day in homeroom. In sixth grade, as I recall, we went back to our rooms to get what we had.
In those days, of course, we didn’t have the ability to turn on a TV station from our computers, and certainly, we couldn’t get the news on our (flip) phones; in fact, I recall that many of those phones had lost their signals, though that might not be completely accurate. I do remember that when we had any time off, we gathered around the one TV hidden in a supply closet in the Media Center, away from student eyes, and watched, squashed together. Some sobbed. No one spoke.
I remember, too, that staff members who weren’t in the classroom volunteered their time to make calls to family members. And all day long, in those classrooms, the telephone would beep and we would receive instructions to send yet another student to the office. Yet we couldn’t tell those who remained what was going on, because administration felt that the parents and guardians should be the ones to do so. These were 11, and 12, and 13 year olds, after all. And truthfully, what did we even know? We continued to get bits and pieces of information during our non-teaching times, and for the rest of the day, pretended to go on with teaching. But those remaining students knew something was up – of course they did. There were no text messages on hidden cell phones to tell them, though, as there would be today. They would just have to wait.
And then there were the staff members who got calls, too, or asked to leave, because their loved ones worked in or around the World Trade Center, or had been heading there, and they hadn’t been heard from. I saw one escorted out, crying. (Her husband was okay, as it turns out, but she was never the same.)
Those children I taught – those 11 year olds – would now be 29, some beginning to have their own children. And they would never forget, because when they came back to school the next day, and the next, and the next, it became part of the reality of their lives. And some of them lost relatives, and family friends (though thankfully, in our building, no one lost a parent).
They would not forget because this was, in fact, their lives, their history. They would remember where they were that day, and how they found out what had happened, and how their teachers helped them to deal with this horror every single day, for months, and years, to follow.
Which brings me closer to the present day. The children I taught last year, and the year before, and the year before that did not have a personal connection to this day, unless their own family was affected. It was history, like JFK’s assassination, or D-Day, or anything else they read about online, or in textbooks.
In fact, to give me perspective each year, as this day approached, I remember counting back, trying to imagine what my now seventh graders, 12 year olds, might remember on their own. In 2003, they would have been nine years old – they would surely remember. But by 2006, on the five-year anniversary of 9/11, they would have been only seven. Maybe, maybe, they might remember something, or remember at least the sense of something very important going on – or would they? What about in 2011, at the 10-year anniversary, when they were only two? By 2013, when I realized that my students would have been born on or around 9/11, I knew, of course, that there would be no memories of their own. And so it became clear that we would have to make these memories for them.
So last year, as I did every year, I waited to hear “our” song played on the intercom and then shared some personal reflections of my own. I allowed students to share with each other, and with the class, if they wanted to – though of course, as the years passed, they had less and less to say.
Although I wasn’t there today, I hope this song was played again.
LEE GREENWOOD I'm Proud To Be An American Lyrics If tomorrow all the things were gone I'd worked for all my life And I had to start again with just my children and my wife I'd thank my lucky stars to be livin' here today ' Cause the flag still stands for freedom and they can't take that away And I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free And I won't forget the men who died who gave that right to me And I gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today ' Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land God bless the USA From the lakes of Minnesota to the hills of Tennessee Across the plains of Texas From sea to shining sea From Detroit down to Houston and New York to L.A. Well there's pride in every American heart and it's time we stand and say That I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free And I won't forget the men who died who gave that right to me And I gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today ' Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land God bless the USA https://www.elyrics.net/read/l/lee-greenwood-lyrics/i_m-proud-to-be-an-american-lyrics.html Photo: Fine Art America.