Students say 9/11 education has been incomplete
A decade later, some of those whose childhoods were marked by 9/11 remember and reflect on its impact – or lack thereof – on their lives
On Sept. 11, 2001, a Moses Lake second-grader drew a crayon rendition of the World Trade Center’s twin towers on fire, with people falling out of windows.
“It was pretty detailed and grim,” says the child’s former teacher, Sara Ferris.
A month later the same boy drew another picture; “This time there was a colorful rainbow stretched over the top of both buildings,” Ferris recalls.
She believes the drawing was his way of showing that “he was slowly beginning to heal and come to terms with what happened that extraordinary day.”
Ten Inland Northwest residents who were children or teenagers the day terrorists attacked the U.S. said those feelings of confusion, fear, loss and grief were common as their emotions echoed the reactions of the adults around them.
“My mom saw the TV and started freaking out, so I started freaking out,” said Alyssa Lyn Fortier, 15, of Coeur d’Alene. “Other adults were upset, so I became upset.”
Spokane resident Abbie Magee, 16, said “At the time, I didn’t realize what was going on or what it meant. I thought it was just a building, and we could rebuild it. It was so far away, I didn’t really understand why it was such a big deal.”
The young people interviewed for this story said the comprehension is still not complete. Although the event has been included in textbooks for nearly a decade, many say their teachers haven’t extensively covered 9/11 in class and they’ve gained their knowledge of the event from popular culture or others. Some say they’ve learned that all terrorism emanates from the Middle East. Most say they’re not fearful, in any case.
“I don’t fear al-Qaida,” said Spokane resident Autumn Plumbo, 16, via email. “Perhaps it is because, so engrossed in my daily life, personal life and the pursuit of my goals, I do not have the time to fear.”
Plumbo said she doesn’t see the point of dwelling on the threat of terrorism, or for that matter swine flu, global warming and the end of the world.
Bekky Berg, 17, of Spokane, said she wishes she could remember more about 9/11 as the 10th anniversary arrives this weekend.
“I wish that our schools could teach us more,” she said. “I don’t want this part of America’s history to be lost. I want it to be remembered.”
‘I thought it was a movie’
Many young people say their memory of Sept. 11, 2001, is of their parents, teachers or fellow students staring at TVs in shock, sorrow and disbelief.
“I remember walking into band class before school started, and our teacher hadn’t set up anything for class. He was just sitting in front of the television,” said former Coeur d’Alene resident Luke StormoGipson, now 21 and living in New York City. “About 40 or 50 of us watched as the first and the second tower were hit with airplanes.”
Matt Tarzwell, 21, recalled seeing the news before he went to grade school. “I thought it was a movie,” the Gonzaga University student said.
Ben Oakley, then 18 and a freshman at Whitworth University, said, “I remember waking up to the sound of my roommate’s mother calling repeatedly to tell us to turn on the television. She said America was under attack.”
The school day was anything but normal.
“We went to class but told our teachers we didn’t want to be there,” said Oakley, who works as a legislative assistant for Washington state Rep. Kevin Parker. “We couldn’t focus.”
The students were excused.
Plumbo lived in Honolulu, Hawaii, at the time. She remembers her first-grade teacher ushering the class outside and asking them to lean against the wall “with our heads down to honor those who were dying.”
Understanding gained through experience
Spokane resident Sheridan Robak was 13 when her class watched “United 93,” the film that told story of the passengers who tried to regain control of their plane and stop an attack on the nation’s capital.
“We were supposed to explain how adversity can break some, but allow others to break records,” the Ferris High School student said. Robak’s assignment was one of the few 9/11-related school lessons those interviewed recalled being taught.
Fortier, 15, said she learned in fourth grade that “the soldiers were going to Iraq and Iran to fight the people who had done this. Americans were going to go kill the terrorists because they believed the terrorists were going to kill Americans.”
The Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy student says so far, she hasn’t read about the attacks in any of her textbooks.
Magee said, “School has taught us that terrorists look like people from the Middle East. I feel like that’s wrong, but we need to be cautious.”
Several other young people agreed that their take-away knowledge of terrorism is that it’s confined to the Middle East. However, they also acknowledge influence from friends, documentaries and television news.
StormoGipson, who grew up in Coeur d’Alene, said one teacher “tried to explain the origins (of terrorism), they linked it to the Middle East, but now I think they should have taken a more holistic approach in that terrorism is everywhere, even in our own country. Not pinpoint it to the Middle East.”
Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin, 32, who attends Gonzaga Law School, was a senior at Oberlin College in Ohio in 2001. He recalled that international students at his former college “commented that they didn’t understand why Americans were so shaken, people die in terrorist acts every day, all over the world.”
Oakley chose to look at some of the more positive aspects brought about from the attacks.
“Even in a situation where there’s evil and violence and murder, it’s an opportunity to learn and grow,” he said. “It brought about heightened patriotism. It caused people to get in touch with their neighbors.”
Since moving to New York, StormoGipson said he’s come to understand another aspect of the attacks: The people in his new hometown are much more affected by the event and its anniversaries.
“When I came here, I didn’t really know the implication of 9/11 until the anniversary rolled around,” he said. “It’s not something people observe very thoroughly on the West Coast, but here it is a day of remembrance and it’s very solemn. People take the day off to show respect. People are really connected to it. And I feel almost insulated.”
StormoGipson has lived there for three years and only recently visited ground zero, site of the attack on the World Trade Center. “It took me aback a little bit. They are trying to make it an outdoor memorial, so it seems like a tourist thing. I don’t know if that’s appropriate.”
No lingering fear
All of the young people interviewed say they don’t have lingering fear from the Sept. 11 attacks.
Gary Garvin, a child psychologist in Spokane, said that’s not surprising. “Everyone reacts to trauma differently based on proximity (to an event) and age,” he explained. “Trauma is experiencing any emotion at a level you are not prepared for, whether it’s the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11 or a car wreck.”
Robak said she only worries when she flies on a plane or hears a plane flying low to the ground. “But I know security is really tight, so I don’t worry too much.” Fortier is not fearful, either, she said. “The soldiers are going to stop that (another terrorist attack) from happening.”
Phil Lazarus, president of the National Association of School Psychologists, said children today have experienced 9/11 differently than how an earlier generation experienced the Cold War. For Spokane residents, that threat was immediate because Fairchild Air Force Base was a potential target of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
“During the Cold War and the potential for a nuclear holocaust, we were concerned about the impact of nuclear radiation impacting the country – not just a direct hit. Therefore even if we did not have a direct hit, we were still concerned about the effects of nuclear fallout,” Lazarus said.
“I do not believe that children are experiencing this type of fear related to terrorism today,” he said
Ashley Meese, now 22 and a student at Eastern Washington University, said she hadn’t felt much fear about terrorism until recently.
“But when I started hearing about the bomb threats downtown this year, I did feel fear,” Meese said of the pipe bomb a Stevens County man has admitted to placing along the route of Spokane’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day march in January.
“I work downtown,” she said. “I don’t want to be another casualty just because people in this world don’t get along. I would rather walk out on the street and be accidentally hit by a bus than be purposely killed by someone with so much hate.”