America's Deliberate Empathy in Teaching 9/11

The nation’s conscious effort to explain the tragedy as a triumph of compassion, not the onslaught of ruin

Two girls walk through a field filled with American flags.
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

This fall’s incoming college freshmen were only toddlers when planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Kyle Ward, author of History in the Making and director of the social-studies education program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, characterizes their recollections of that morning and its aftermath as “shadow memories.” They probably had a sense something was wrong, he explains, but wouldn’t remember many, if any, personal feelings. Students born on September 11, 2001 are starting tenth grade and likely have what Ward calls “textbook memories,” as I do of JFK’s assassination. I can recount facts about the weather in Dallas, the motorcade, and a small boy’s heart-wrenching salute at his father’s funeral.

But even with these poignant details, it’s nearly impossible to grasp how it felt in America on November 22, 1963. Invariably, there is a psychological gulf between my generation and a national trauma experienced by our parents— but one we only studied in school and absorbed through cultural osmosis. Learning about any historic tragedy, emotional gaps between those who were there and those who came later are inevitable.

Yet for September 11, educators are attempting to close the disparity, showing students what it felt like in America that fall, and what they can learn emotionally from the weeks that followed. Teaching children the compassionate side of 9/11 is  an incremental process. Fifteen years later, students across the country, from elementary grades to college campuses, are learning about the day in large part through public service and remembrance—a form of instruction that is fundamentally different from how other historic moments are taught. This approach makes “goodness” the core lesson of a day that spawned so many political, religious, and economic consequences.

In fact, framing 9/11 through an empathetic lens is largely due to two friends, David Paine and Jay Winuk, who have been a driving cultural force to change the perception of September 11 from a “day of evil to a day of good.” Winuk lost his brother Glenn, a volunteer firefighter and EMT who responded to the burning South Tower from his nearby law office. Glenn, as Winuk describes, embodies everything the day should stand for: a call to action. In 2002, the pair launched the nonprofit 9/11 Day, and, with the help of other survivor groups, began lobbying Congress to make September 11 an official date of citizenship, volunteerism, and good deeds.

Today, in addition to charitable activities throughout the country, 9/11 Day also helps schools and parents teach “the other side of September 11,” defined more broadly than an opportunity to pay much-deserved tribute to first responders. Their organization provides teacher resources for promoting empathy among classmates, such as having students sit in a circle and write a reflective sentence about the person next to them. It also includes ideas for engaging children in a day of community kindness, like helping an elderly neighbor with dinner on September 11 or hosting a notebook drive for Syrian refugees. According to Winuk, 40,000 American classrooms now use their materials, while more than 28 million people nationwide participated last year in the 9/11 Day of Service. “Our mission early on was to ensure that future generations don’t just learn from history textbooks about the horror of 9/11,” Winuk said, “but that they also learn about the genuine, spontaneous outpouring of generosity that followed.”

For high-school textbook writers, teaching 9/11 against the backdrop of wars still on-going—and surges of xenophobia—sets it apart from an attack like Pearl Harbor or a trauma like JFK, where, a decade-and-a-half later, both events had a distinct sense of narrative closure. The causes and effects of September 11 may feel empirically muddled for some teachers. On the one hand, 9/11 is referred to as “the darkest day in America’s history.” On the other, students see a fresh wave of terrorist-linked massacres not only in France and Turkey, but in San Bernardino too.

According to Ward, 15 years isn’t usually enough time to chart historiographical change—how the narrative of the past evolves. Textbooks, however, have steadily shifted from a “more nationalistic perspective” to placing 9/11 in larger sections on the “War on Terror,” sacrificing space for the particular day to give students more nuance and complexity. Now, Ward said, textbooks show that 9/11 didn’t occur in a vacuum. In retrospect, the first World Trade Center and U.S.S. Cole bombing, as well as embassy attacks in Africa, presaged an era of global terrorism. “This context is key for 9/11,” Ward explained. “Typically, the language used around this event is that it completely changed the world.” If September 11 did, in fact, have such an unprecedented impact, he added, students must understand what America was like before and after to comprehend why this was such a singularly monumental morning.

By the same token, as the 27-year-old writer and 9/11 survivor Helaina Hovitz describes, September 11 is much more than “just a day in a textbook” because it entails a distinct level of personal trauma. It is the first time American civilians— including children— were attacked, en masse, on their own land. And New York students have painful stories of resilience, as some experienced displacement from both their schools and their childhood homes.

Hovitz is the author of the memoir After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey Through Darkness to a New Beginning, which opens in an ordinary seventh-grade morning, her first period science class, learning about biomes and ecosystems at I.S. 89 in Lower Manhattan, an intermediate school blocks from the World Trade Center. Suddenly, “a sharp sound, like a giant, whirring motor” interrupts her teacher. She describes how “the floors shuddered,” and “the shelves rattled”—how she was herded into the cafeteria, “hysterical parents” arriving to pick up their children, and finally, the “oppressive smoke and ash” outside the school. At the end of September 2001, her grade was relocated to the O. Henry Learning Center, farther uptown and not within walking distance from her home. “It was the first time I had to take the subway alone in the morning and afternoon,” Hovitz said. “And the subway was one of the most terrifying, triggering vessels for trauma triggers, literally.”

Hovitz’s seventh-grade classmate, Thomas Panevino, shared with me his harrowing account after I.S. 89 was evacuated: “Bodies every minute it felt like, just dropping. There were two people, holding hands at the end before they hit the ground, shoes all over the streets and this thick, black darkness. You couldn’t even see the sun.” Panevino said he is often struck that he and students at schools in the immediate wake of Ground Zero saw more death and destruction in an hour than many soldiers do in a lifetime.

But despite the carnage the little boy witnessed, Panevino’s experience that semester also captures the good-heartedness of complete strangers that Winuk and Paine set out to make 9/11’s legacy. In December 2001, keeping up with homework was difficult. The Panevinos had fled their smoke-filled home in Battery Park City, and were living in a midtown hotel room. Four months after the attacks, in a New York Times article, Panevino’s mother, Judi, described the kindly employees at a nearby Kinko’s. When Panevino “walks in each afternoon and plops down in front of one the $27-an-hour computers, the employees drop everything and rush over as if he were an important mogul,” to help him with his schoolwork. “They’ve been saints,” Judi Panvino told the New York Times reporter. Panevino’s “exceeded expectations” that fall, and according to the article, the family shared them with the shop’s “proud staff.”

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In 2009, rather than make 9/11 a federal holiday, like Columbus Day or Martin Luther King’s birthday, Congress designated it a “National Day of Service and Remembrance,” drawing Winuk and Paine’s vision of a “day of good” in American neighborhoods and classrooms closer toward reality. But September 11’s proximity to Labor Day and the start of the academic calendar also presented practical concerns. An additional holiday costs both federal and states governments hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity; people also worried that 9/11 might ultimately become trivialized by barbeques and car or mattress sales.

At the same time, Department of Education materials—such as, the lesson plan “Positive School Climate and 9/11,” which helps teachers prevent bullying and discrimination—and the White House’s annual proclamation reinforce a growing determination to make 9/11 a uniquely historic day of empathy. Last year, for instance, President Obama said: “The compassion that rose in the hearts and minds of the American people on September 11 still serves as the ultimate rebuke to the evil of those who attacked us … Volunteers donated time, money, and blood to ensure wounds gave way to healing and recovery.” The 9/11 Memorial website provides teaching materials for K-12 students, tied to the Common Core Standards for use throughout the school year and across subjects—not only social studies and history, but English and art as well. Children as young as kindergarten and first grade are encouraged to ask: How did people help each other on 9/11? How can students comfort other children feeling a loss or facing a crisis?

When students of any age only learn about the facts of 9/11 from a textbook, there will always be gaps in understanding its full history, according to Robin Goodman, the executive director of A Caring Hand, a center for bereaved families and co-author of The Day Our World Changed: Children’s art of 9/11. The Pentagon Memorial includes her book in its suggested lesson plans—“Remembrance and Memory As Seen Through the Eyes of Artists”—for middle-school students. To capture raw, immediate reactions, Goodman collected 83 pieces of artwork by children, ages 5 to 18, in the four months after 9/11. For example, then-8-year-old, Melanie Cohn’s “untitled” is a drawing of a sad-faced fireman, tears streaming from his eyes as he douses a burning building. The words “thank you so much for helping us” are written at the top of the page, punctuated by a small, red heart.

“I don’t believe September 11 will ever become a static event compared to one like Pearl Harbor because we’ve chosen to frame it as a distinctly hopeful moment in history, when countless ordinary people came together with tremendous compassion and selflessness to serve others,” said Rashid Duroseau, the sixth-grade history teacher and civics coordinator at Democracy Prep Charter Middle School in Harlem. To convey this unity, Duroseau uses sections of the book The Stories They Tell: Artifacts from the National September 11 Memorial, which includes a collection of intensely personal items entrusted to the 9/11 museum by family members of those killed, as well as first responders and survivors. In the book, there are pictures of a lieutenant’s fire helmet, a torn wallet, a red bandana—artifacts from people in Lower Manhattan that morning.

The visual imagery can stir intense emotions for students about the loss of life, as well as a deeper understanding about the bond Americans felt, at least for a little while, to one another. While over 3,000 people died, September 11 was also the greatest rescue operation on American soil: An estimated 500,000 New Yorkers were evacuated from the Ground Zero area by boat, including Panevino, Hovitz’s 11-year-old classmate. The 10-minute documentary Boatlift shows students how, after the Towers fell, the Coast Guard, tugboats, party boats, diving boats— all rushed to help, ferrying a half-million survivors to safety. September 11 was a larger boat operation than World War II’s Battle of Dunkirk when nearly 340,000 British and French soldiers were rescued over nine days.

Perhaps, in teaching 9/11 as an American lesson in compassion, schools will also grow more skilled at using the day to discuss discrimination felt by their Muslim students, particularly as reports suggest increased incidents of Islamophobia over the past year. Based on holiday absences, Democracy Prep’s Charter High School’s, assistant principal and civics coordinator, Elisa DiMauro estimates the student body is nearly 25 percent Muslim. Last year, to mark the 14th anniversary, after grade-wide assemblies—where students watched footage and learned facts about 9/11—they broke into smaller advisory groups of 10 or so to discuss Islamophobia: where it comes from and how to combat it. “One of the big things I noticed,” DiMauro said, “is that the discussions focused a lot on one’s ability to be patriotic without offending other cultures. Can you push back on what your country’s doing and still be patriotic?”

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On Saturday, after George Washington University’s freshman convocation, a fleet of yellow buses will arrive to shuttle the class of 2020 to 50 different community-service sites in and around Washington, D.C. Participation in the annual event for freshmen isn’t required,  said Amy Cohen, the school’s Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service executive director. “But it is an expectation, and we have had huge participation. Usually we send 85 percent of incoming freshmen to serve in the community.”

This is the eighth year the university has coupled convocation with freshman-wide community outreach. “It is a truly great introduction to civic, academic, and residential life, so much of which is about unity and empathy,” Cohen explained. “Afterwards, we have students reflect on the reason we do service for 9/11 and how this gets people from different backgrounds to work very closely together.” To take one example, every year GW students provide a variety of volunteer services for an armed-forces retirement facility. Sometimes freshmen play bingo with residents, Cohen describes, while others rake or weed the grounds or clean the bathrooms and common areas.

This summer in particular, Paine felt pressing concern that students might not care about 9/11 anymore. “They were either too young to know about it or weren’t even born yet,” he explains. “They see us take our shoes off at the airport. They hear talk of grave division in the world.” But it’s up to parents and schools, he said, to teach future generations the lesson of 9/11—that a deep tragedy in America brought out the best in people.