Sometimes you find the teachable moment. Other times the teachable moment finds you. Sometimes, it seems you need to duck.
I made good on my promise to start more regular recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance, except for yesterday. Which meant that of all days, today wouldn’t necessarily be the best day to not have the kids recite the Pledge for a second consecutive day. I was trying to mutter under my breath something to myself about 9/11, but a couple of the boys heard me nonetheless, and while 29 of their classmates stood politely, waiting for my cue to start the Pledge, the two boys began to pepper me with questions about 9/11. We met our Ed. Code obligations, and I turned towards the front of the classroom to pull down my map. I started formulating in my head, how best to explain 9/11.
Up to that moment, however, my earlier trip to the school’s office had had me find a printed list of my students’ collective birthdays. The oldest of my students were born in 2002. In many respects, trying to explain 9/11 to my kids seemed to me, at that instant, to be akin to explaining Vietnam. While the adults and older siblings around them growing up might have some intrinsic understanding of the events of that day, it occurred to me how handicapped I was going to be, to try to build upon the student’s understanding of an event to which they had no context or background.
On the other hand, once I had opened up that can of worms, I sort of felt I had no choice but to deep-fry them and wolf them down.
This was not a teachable moment, this was that moment having a seizure. I did my best trying to explain 9/11. I was not going to merely dismiss the historical background as one in which we were attacked because “Americans are hated because of their freedom.” Too much of that sentiment had gone down over the last decade, doing, in my opinion, a disservice to the proper teaching of America’s place in the International Community. On top of that, teaching at a school that prides itself on a curriculum with an international focus, such an overly simple viewpoint was shortsightedly jingoistic.
As important as 9/11 happens to be, in terms of cultural and emotional touchstone for adults, for my kids, I honestly began to wonder how well they could emotionally connect and relate to something that did not occur within their living experience. I thought back to the day itself, when I told the kids how myself and 3 colleagues watched the second tower fall on my classroom T.V. that morning. I also shared a family friend’s experience teaching at a school site, essentially within the shadow of the Towers, that morning. It still felt visceral to me, but reflecting back, 9/11 had to have been, for these kids, what the end of the Vietnam War in 1973-74 felt for me, when I was about the same age as these students are now. I knew we had been fighting there, but I couldn’t tell anyone as to why we had been…
I also realized that the 5th graders who had been in my class later on, during that morning in 2001, were now in their early 20s. An important milestone historically, yes. But at what point does 9/11, in subsequent years, become even more removed from my students’ experiences? Do we, as teachers, have to expect to address 9/11 every day on the anniversary? I know I struggle enough each year trying to help my students differentiate between Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, and that’s not even taking into account that many of my kids, having just come from our 4th grade, didn’t know that this past Monday, September 9th, was California’s Admission Day, nor could they likely tell me the meaning of December 7th, or even June 6th.
As I finished, having used up a half-an-hour of time this morning, I looked around the room, convinced I had lost a good chunk of my class. I told my charges that history is never as complicated as it might appear, nor is it simplistically explained as many people would have us do. In fact, I admitted that I felt that there was likely even more information about 9/11 that we are still learning, well beyond the practiced narrative that I had internalized over these past 12 years. Instead, it was my job, I told them, to teach them well enough, so that, perhaps, one of them might grow up to be a historian, and one day be lucky enough to get access to the key missing information about that day, with the hopes that they could write the definitive accounting of the events of 9/11.
If I could teach them how to pursue history, one day I might be lucky enough to have them come back and teach me something.