September 11 and Living History

On September 11, we pray, we grieve, and we remember.  Just the words “World Trade Center” bring tears to my eyes, I remember those who were lost but I also remember the shocking feeling of vulnerability in the city which I love, and the way that so many people came together to honor those who were killed and those who were working in Ground Zero.  I remember flags at half staff and fire departments draped with purple bunting.  I don’t have to watch the news coverage over and over again to remember what September 11th means.

To my children, on the other hand, September 11th is as abstract as Pearl Harbor.

When I was in 4th grade I had to call my mother’s uncle to ask him about his time of service during World War II for a school report.  He explained to me that he enlisted the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Family legend is that he was 16 years old and he lied to the army recruiter about his age to join up.  As a little girl, it was hard for me to imagine that much raw emotion, that a military action as far away as Hawaii would inspire a young man to go to war.

When I look back on September 11th, I realized that it has changed the way that I understand history.  I think about the London blitzes and the fear of living with the shelling day after day and I understand now why parents sent their children to live with strangers in the countryside.

I would like my children to understand.  I don’t want to scare them or make them sad, but I want them to understand a little bit about what it felt like to be an American in those moments.

The Church of St. Francis in New York, near Penn Station, has a large section of twisted steel beams which look like abstract sculpture.  They were pulled from Ground Zero and the sculpture serves as a memorial to Fr. Michael Judge, the Franciscan fire department chaplain.  The art appears abstract, but for a child who can think about a strong building, seeing it bent and broken is intense.  My daughter’s school also has a piece of one of the beams, it is formed into a cross and the tall base on which it is mounted has a simple rendition of the towers in brass.  This cross is called, fittingly, the “Cor Unum Cross.”  In those weeks following September 11th it felt as if Americans were of one heart.

I don’t have wisdom to impart, and perhaps this is a day that is better without words.  There are so many things to talk about on September 11, but one small thing to do is to remember to teach history as a living subject.

History is about people and emotion, the way that real people responded to tragedy, to fear, to injustice, sometimes they responded in ways that show tremendous virtue and valor, and sometimes in cowardice and hate.  Sometimes their actions saved lives and furthered freedom, and sometimes even well intentioned decisions made things much worse.

September 11 is history now, our children cannot remember that day, they can only learn about it through books, exhibits, films and our stories, but the stories we tell are important, they shape our civilization.   May God bless, may we be a nation with one heart.

  • http://www.buildingcathedrals.com/ Kellie

    Praying and remembering all those who lost their lives that day, and those they left behind.

  • http://www.buildingcathedrals.com/ Kellie

    I just told my 7 year old, Philly baseball loving son, “It was the only time I’ve ever rooted for the Yankees.”

  • Juris Mater

    Alice, thank you for this reflection. We were juniors in college at the time, and you’re right, it was the first time that I experienced this type of historic tragedy as an adult, and extremely close to home, though not as much as you. It changed everything, didn’t it? Thank you for helping us remember that day today and to think through what it taught us.


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