“The Stories that are Important to Remember”: Understanding 9/11 as the Post Generation

Stuyvesant’s current students were all born after the 9/11 attacks. As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, how should students understand the event?

Reading Time: 10 minutes

“I was actually sitting in my calculus class, and I saw the first plane hit the North Tower. And as the day progressed and everyone was scared and apprehensive, we turned on the television [...] to watch the news. And then while we were watching, we saw the second plane on television. We ran to the windows and saw the second plane hit, and then the day sort of was a lot of chaos,” Mohammad Haque (’02) said.

“I was in German class [...] in one of the south-facing classrooms on the fifth floor, [...] and that is where I was when the buildings came down,” Liz O’Callahan (’02) said. “We were in a place where we could see the smoke and the dust clouds coming [toward] us [...] We saw the dust coming toward the building.”

“That morning was a very intense and scary experience,” English teacher Annie Thoms said. “We didn’t know what was happening really, and we didn’t really know the extent of the danger or when and how we at Stuy were in physical danger. At first, people weren’t worried about terrorists on the ground, and then, of course, nobody thought that the towers would fall.”

Stuyvesant was only four blocks away from the Twin Towers when two hijacked planes crashed into the North and South Towers on September 11, 2001, killing thousands of people. Moments later, another plane crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth in a field in Pennsylvania. This devastating event would soon dramatically change America’s cultural, political, domestic, and international landscape.

Twenty years later, current Stuyvesant students now belong to the generation born in the post-9/11 era. The oldest students in the building, the seniors, were born in 2004, while the freshmen were born in 2007—six years after the attack. As the years progress, however, the long-lasting impacts of 9/11 still continue to be felt. When such an event has changed both the story of Stuyvesant and the story of America so greatly, how then, should students in the post-9/11 generation understand an event which they have no memory of?

In Stuyvesant’s social studies classes, 9/11 is embedded in the U.S. History, U.S. Government, and sophomore Global History curricula. Teachers teach not only what happened on September 11 but also the historical context and political aftermath. “For example, in United States History, you’ll teach it as a part of the lesson on the War on Terror and the foreign policy changes and implications with the collapse of communism and some of the impact that it had on destabilizing certain regions,” Assistant Principal of Social Studies Jennifer Suri said. “In Global History, we also talk about it in terms of the history of that region and the history of Afghanistan and its relationship [with] Pakistan, [the] Soviet Union, Iran, and that area and why it’s been a strategic interest for more than 100 years for competing powers and Great Britain.”

In addition to understanding the core facts of the event, social studies classes also explore the question of how our country memorializes the tragedy of 9/11. “When we’re commemorating the event, the lessons might be more focused on ‘how do we as a country memorialize these events?’ and so we might draw comparisons to Gettysburg or the Vietnam War memorial and why these are important and why it’s important for all citizens to be aware of this, to remember these events and memorialize them,” Suri said.

When teaching the New York City History elective, social studies teacher Robert Sandler also dives into the construction of the Twin Towers themselves. “We go back to the post-World War II era and examine how David Rockefeller and his brother Nelson, the Governor of New York, wanted to create a World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan as a way to revitalize that part of the city,” he said in an e-mail interview. “We then examine photographs, video, eulogies, and poetry to understand how the 9/11 attacks impacted the city.” And having been at Stuyvesant during the attack, Sandler shares with his students his personal experience of witnessing Flight 175 hit the South Tower and evacuating students from the building.

The learning expands beyond the classroom, as Sandler also takes his students on outdoor walking tours. “We [...] go on a special tour of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum with the Port Authority Police and hear testimony from survivors,” he said. “I also take students on a walking tour titled ‘9/11 Memorial and Its Neighbors,’ where we examine historical landmarks in the area, like the old Customs House, Castle Clinton, Trinity Church, and the site of the [September] 16, 1920 anarchist bombing of J.P. Morgan’s bank.”

Teaching about 9/11 is not just the work of history teachers. In the last 20 years, Thoms has used “with their eyes,” a play structured through interview-based monologues from people who recounted their experiences during 9/11, as a mentor text in a larger context of storytelling through her interview-based monologue project. When she taught Women’s Voices, students were tasked with finding women whose stories they felt had been silenced or had not been told. “In that context, I’ve had students read the play ‘with their eyes’ and use those monologues as models that they can refer to as they shape their own monologue, and also, it gives us some time to talk in class about what the Stuyvesant experience and community [were] like after that.”

“with their eyes,” was the Stuyvesant-created 2002 winter drama. Thoms, who was the faculty advisor of the Stuyvesant Theater Community at the time, and 10 cast members worked together to interview people from all facets of the Stuyvesant community, including a school custodian, a cafeteria worker, and two students from the special education school within Stuyvesant, about their experiences during 9/11. “We wanted to represent all of the different perspectives in the student community. The actors created the play. They did these interviews and then transcribed them word for word and edited them,” Thoms said. “We had all been through such intense and difficult experiences that everybody had a story that they needed to tell.” The monologues have since been published in a book titled “with their eyes: September 11th: The View from a High School at Ground Zero.”

Reading “with their eyes” is a prism through which students more clearly see the parallels between 9/11 and the traumas in their own lives. When hearing these stories, the connections students create contextualize the emotional toll of 9/11 better. “At moments of community crises in other ways, like after [...] the Halloween attack at Stuyvesant, the students who read the play that year and in a couple of years following really keyed in some of the similarities in the experience of knowing that there’s a tragedy happening right outside your window and being stuck in the building because of it and not knowing the extent of the danger at first,” Thoms said. “And they had a really kind of intense feeling of understanding 9/11 a bit better because of their own experience with that attack.”

The fact that no current or future Stuyvesant students will have a direct memory of 9/11 makes discussing and understanding the event’s impact all the more vital. “It’s easy to read things in history books that happened 20, 30, 40 years ago and feel disconnected and [ask] ‘Okay, why does this matter to me as a 16-year-old?’” Assistant Manager of Youth & Family Programs at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum Meredith Ketchmark said. “But because there are so many things that happened as a result of 9/11 that are still impacting us in many ways, in ways that we might not see day to day, those things are important to learn about and to talk about.”

One such impact is the detrimental chronic health effects—most commonly cancer and respiratory diseases—that many first responders are susceptible to from being exposed to the various air toxins of Ground Zero. “I wish people understood better that there [have] been long-term health implications for people who were downtown who weren’t necessarily victims but who have seen the way that being downtown has changed our physical health, not just our emotional health,” O’Callahan said.

And amid the COVID-19 pandemic, those with underlying health conditions stemming from 9/11 became more vulnerable. “A lot of that community of people are especially at risk with COVID-19 because they already have these things that are making them a little bit immunocompromised, so it’s heartbreaking to see those numbers spike in the wake of this pandemic too,” Ketchmark said. “That’s something that’s affecting the world in which we’re living today, and that’s why it’s so important to focus on that aspect of the 9/11 story for this younger generation.”

It is also crucial to recognize the toll that 9/11 has had on South Asian and Muslim-Americans, who were blamed, harassed, and scapegoated for the attacks. “It’s really really important to acknowledge how things changed for Brown America after 9/11,” O’Callahan said. “If 9/11 is framed and taught as foreign terrorists attacking the United States of America without also acknowledging the extent to which people who are Americans were discriminated against in the wake of 9/11 because they looked like what someone else perceived as what the terrorists looked like, then we’ve missed the point.”

Intense anti-Muslim sentiments and Islamaphobia also redefined the American identity, excluding certain groups of people due to their racial and cultural background. “[9/11 has] changed a lot about identity,” Haque said. “There is this idea, even in New York City sometimes, of who is American, who is a New Yorker, and who is an ‘other,’ and these are ideas that unfortunately still perpetuate today.”

Sophomore Amanda Cisse added, “[9/11] shaped a lot of American cultural perspectives on South Asians and Middle Easterns [...] It might be good to learn about that culturally because a lot of stereotypes came from that, which is unfortunate.”

Politically, 9/11 is also an important factor in understanding the current conflict in Afghanistan. A month after 9/11, the United States launched attacks in Afghanistan under the Bush administration after the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, who was behind the attacks. “I hope students understand when they watch the news and see the evacuation of Kabul, the criticism of how President Biden handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the debate over whether America should keep troops in the region, that this entire situation has its roots in the 9/11 attacks,” Sandler said. “I’d like students to think about the similarities and differences between the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon and recent events in Kabul.”

While the international sphere changed vastly in the years following 9/11, we must not lose sight of the personal accounts that put into perspective the impact the attacks had on individuals. “A lot of times, the political and socioeconomic effects of 9/11 are spoken about more in the forefront, and then the personal experiences and stories of the people who’ve lost those stories get forgotten, and I think those are the stories that are important to remember,” Haque said. “The loss of that day and what the country and what the city lost, not just the safety and sanctity we had before, but [also] the people who are no longer here and the way their families were affected, that’s really also [what] I don’t want to get lost.”

Sometimes, learning the way that our social and cultural landscape has changed due to 9/11 allows us to draw similarities in our own lives, especially in the context of COVID-19. “I taught over Zoom ‘with their eyes’ and the monologue project, and a lot of my students had a similar feeling of this Stuyvesant community experience of being removed from your building, being removed from your community, seeing your own family racially profiled, [...] and seeing an initial feeling of solidarity in the face of danger, in the face of being part of a disaster community,” Thoms said. “I’ve been thinking a lot this way what it means to be a part of a disaster community and about both those initial moments of solidarity and ways that it can spill into scapegoating.”

By drawing such connections to our own experiences of community crises, students can truly grasp the severity, and, ultimately, the relatability of 9/11. “Especially this year, after having gone through this pandemic, students sort of now have a frame of reference for what it’s like to experience a drastic shift in the world that they’re living in, knowing that there was this sense of fear and uncertainty of what would happen in the future, but knowing the importance of coming together with your community to try to know, help each other, and show this resilience in the face of this mass tragedy event,” Ketchmark said.

Though we did not experience the attack ourselves, we are not so far removed from the event when we are surrounded by adults who all have their own experiences to share. “It’s fascinating what you can learn when you pluck up the courage to ask those in your community, and when you do hear those stories, you’ll develop that kind of empathy and understanding a little bit more for what happened and why it is so important to not let those stories just fade into the background,” Ketchmark said. “Learning from the past creates a more kind and stable future for not just your generation, but [also] the generation following.”

This experience of learning from the past is especially true within the Stuyvesant community, where we roam the same halls and learn in the same building that students who lived through 9/11 did. “Kids 20 years ago were basically the same as kids today. We are all on this journey in trying to figure out how to navigate life,” Jeff Orlowski (’02) said.

By taking the time to listen to stories, we can gain a tremendous amount in understanding the very human perspectives that make up 9/11. “So often, when you read in history books or look at media coverage of a certain event, you get a single narrative that starts to play over and over, and you lose sight of the complexity and the different stories that are actually true of an individual’s experience,” Thoms said. “A community is made up of so many different individual observations and so many different individual stories.”

Stories contain a vital weight in shaping the way we remember history. As we walk to the Stuyvesant building in September, our close proximity to the World Trade Center serves as a reminder of the lives that were lost, the racial discrimination that ensued against Muslim-Americans, the subsequent War on Terror and fear of terrorism, and the long-term emotional and physical consequences on those who surround us. When we listen with them to these stories that detail the sights, feelings, and fears of the day, we keep close to the complex narrative of the event that changed, and changes, America. Only then can we move forward together.