On 9/11 I was teaching an 8th grade middle school science class when I saw an obviously distressed staff member in the hall. I went into the hall to talk to her and she informed me that the first tower had been hit. Shortly thereafter the vice principal came by room by room and told me, as they told all teachers, that the central administration had directed that we were not supposed to inform the students in any way of what was happening on the east coast. I thought about it for a short while, stopped my lesson and got out my coat hanger antennae for my old Eisenhower Grant TV, turned it on and stood in silence holding onto the hanger so that the picture was viewable through the snow. I simply told the class that they needed to watch history being made. Teenagers being who and what they are for the most part immediately started making jokes with some not paying any attention at all to the billowing tower and then when video of the second plane was played the gasp of the watchers silenced the rest of the class. By the time the 1st tower fell, only breathing could be heard. I remember mumbling something about the fact that they had probably just watched thousands of people die on live TV. I remember that there was no crying. Later I paraphrased the probably apocryphal quote from Japanese admiral Yamamoto on the slate blackboard. fittingly enough in a room that was old enough to have students sitting in it to hear the news of the beginning of WW II. The quote I wrote, “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with terrible resolve,” the quote referred to Pearl Harbor but seem applicable.
I don’t know how many of my students have served in the military in Afghanistan or Iraq but given their general social economic class I would guess a significant number. Did they know that they were watching their own world change around them? At the time, probably not. Do they know now where they were when the towers fell, I have no doubt. It was the most important lesson I taught that year and it was taught off task, off plan, with few words, and no quantifiable evaluation.
I like to feel that when the bell rang and my students quietly entered the riotous middle school hall that day, a hall filled with the noise of the unknowing and surrounded by the uncaring that perhaps their silence indicated that they had learned more in just a few minutes of watching TV than I had taught them the whole rest of the year.