9/11, Charlottesville, and Children: A Why-To Guide to Teachable Moments

On September 11, 2001, I was teaching fourth grade in Washington DC.  When we got notice of the first hit, I was in the middle of a lesson on phonics and root words.  One of the school’s administrators stepped into the room, approached me closely, and whispered a question to me about whether I knew anyone working in the World Trade Center in New York City.  Having graduated from a NY college where many graduates then moved to the city after graduation, I wasn’t sure how to answer.  Probably?  Maybe?  But why?  He gave a grim, unclear response about “something happening” and it “looking like people need to get out.”  My students didn’t seem to pay much attention to the exchange.

However, when our Principal got on the loudspeaker around 9:45 to tell everyone to line up and move to the hallways for an unplanned assembly, the students began to get suspicious, responding to a tension thrumming in the air.  And, as we stood outside the library, their little bodies pressed against the wall, waiting their turn to file up the stairs to the gymnasium, I passed by the open library door.  The large television was on.  And then I saw Two World Trade Center burning one moment and falling the next.  I turned back to my students and led them away.

Filing into the gymnasium, it was oddly quiet.  Elementary children are not quiet, particularly not in large groups.  But they were quiet, nervous, both still and vibrating.  Our principal launched into a speech about the attacks.  I don’t remember quite what she said.  I kept replaying the image of the tower falling.  Then she took a deep breath and reported that the Pentagon had been hit.  The older children cried out.  The Pentagon, just minutes away, was a place they knew.  Some had family who worked there, or in the nearby businesses named for their proximity to the Pentagon.  The Principal announced that we would wait together, in the auditorium, while parents came to retrieve their children.  The calm we had done our best to maintain held until a distraught parent burst into the gym, yelling that terrorists were attacking D.C. and everyone should leave, get out, flee.  Our promises that “we are safe; you are safe” fell flat, and at some point, the cumulative panic was too much.  We moved back to our classrooms to wait for the families to pick up their students, one by one.

And here is why I tell this story now.  When we got back to the room, my gaggle of little nine and ten year olds (along with one very bright eight year old) were filled with questions, questions that persisted well beyond that first day, that were as fresh and as urgent when we returned to school.  Questions about who.  And from where. And why — why did they do that and why us.   And what now.  And what do we do to keep this from happening again.  

9/11 was the quintessential teachable moment — one we dove into deep.  We learned about global politics, and diplomacy, and military coalitions.  We learned about the United Nations and international financing.  We learned about how poverty and opportunity here in the streets of D.C. was similar to and vastly different from poverty and opportunity in other parts of the world.  We learned about discontent and radicalism and faith and the co-opting of faith.  We learned about civic involvement.  We learned about loss and mourning.  We learned about dispute resolution.  We learned about communities coming together, about everyday heroism.  We learned about community care.  And we learned about the role of our elected leaders in responding to crisis — about the President and Congress but also about the State Department and people like Secretary Colin Powell.

When learning about these things, we didn’t shy away from grey.  The students debated the merits of allocating limited dollars across military defense, military offense, nation-building, diplomacy, foreign aid, or domestic projects.  They wrote letters to Secretary Powell, wishing him well and offering advice on how to proceed.

My eight, and nine, and ten year olds.  Little people can and should be involved in conversations about really rough things — things we adults don’t have figured out for ourselves.  They can offer startlingly insightful perspectives, more than holding their own in these exchanges.  These little humans are fully human.  And in the process of being involved in these discussions, even as we muddle through ourselves, they learn how to stay human, how to process hard feelings at the same time they analyze and parse data and facts and weigh differing perspectives.  They learn to navigate a life that isn’t sanitized or reduced to the edited soundbites and authoritative presentations of textbook recitations of the world.

I’ve been thinking about this because we are neck deep — eyebrow deep — in teachable moments right now.  But I was startled to find on a recent visit with some pre-teen and teens how little they are being involved in these conversations at school or at home.  And a big part of me gets that the urge to protect and shelter our little beings (even the ones that believe they are grown) can drown out everything else.  I understand that my class dealt with these issues head on in part because their visceral experience of 9/11 made it unavoidable.  I also understand that many of today’s teachable moments feel harder to discuss because instead of having clear bad guys on the outside to point to much of what is scary and dark comes from our own (although I recall how my students quicker than most turned the lense back on our own actions when considering 9/11).  I appreciate that these conversations necessitate self-reflection — and perhaps self-indictment — and perhaps our own learning as a part of the consideration when trying to answer that same question of what do we do to keep this from happening again.

Those teens and preteens I met are being deprived by their sheltering, by their peeks into adulthood that consist  of what they view in sports broadcasts, or netflix, or youtube videos of makeup application, ice bucket challenges, celebrity updates, or music videos.  Their families and teachers are being deprived of the full richness of conversation when we include those voices, those perspectives.  Notably, when we try and keep our “adult worries” to ourselves, we don’t.  The stress and strain are still visible, still present — but our children don’t have the tools and the vocabulary to understand, process, and work through.  If we don’t teach them about systems of oppression, privilege, ignorance and hate now, when will they learn and from who and how?  What will their take-aways be?  And how will they understand our silence when they look back

I know that we all — kids and adults — are better for these integrated conversations.  My class that year was the most cohesive, caring and determined I ever had.  They watched out for one another on the playground and in the hallways, modeled de-escalation techniques (even when they didn’t know I was watching), and took great pride in the complex learning of which they were a part.  They embraced that learning because it had real, undeniable urgency and importance.  You can give these gifts to the children in your life, and you should.


Katherine Kimpel

Kate Kimpel is the Senior Editor of Shattering the Ceiling and is also an accomplished civil rights lawyer. She represents women and people of color in discrimination cases (and other kinds of employment and civil rights matters).  When not lawyering, she likely is bragging about her hound dog Ulysses, inventing cocktails to serve at her next dinner party, or convincing her husband to watch reruns of a Joss Whedon television show (any of them will do). 

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