Can 9/11 ever be just another day? And what will I tell my students?

Making the past relevant: students at a Jewish summer camp learning about one sad event, the destruction of the Holy Temple, through the tragedy of 9/11

What a challenging day to make a first impression. On the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, right around the time when the towers crumbled, I will be standing before my class of newly minted seventh graders. I will have to save face and cheerfully smile at my new students and welcome them to a new year of Jewish learning.

All the while, I know at this time I would usually be crying. All the while, I know, in truth, my students would rather be sleeping in on a Sunday morning.  I’m wondering if any other Jewish educators of middle school aged children and older are feeling the way I do; about how to get through this first day.

Let’s hope I don’t lose it and get all teary-eyed in those first introductory moments about an event that happened when my new students were barely out of diapers. After all, ten years to a 13-year-old is a very long time.

I can hear the conversation in the Hebrew School carpool ride home tomorrow: “… new teacher, like, cried on the first day. Ewww.”

For better or worse, time does go on and obligations do not stop just because of a date. Over the years, the date of 9/11 shifted around the days of the week. There have been weddings and homecomings, meetings and business trips.  Sometimes, the anniversary falls in the middle of the week. Sometimes it happens on a Tuesday, the very day of the attacks.

What do I usually do between 8:45 and 9:00 a.m. on the anniversary of 9/11? I’m usually alone. Everyone else in the family has left for school and work. I feel as I should watch the real-time replay of those horrible moments, as CNN plays it every year. Sometimes, I watch it. Most years, I hide in my laundry room in the basement and have a good cry. Then I get on with my day.

What do I usually do the first day of a new school year with my new kids?  I go over expectations. Together, we make a list of class rules. I review classroom procedures and what we will be learning. Also, we have some ice breaker games to get acquainted. 

Can we ignore the events of a decade ago and go on with business as usual? Talking about something as painful as 9/11 on our very first day will be a very difficult thing to do, but just as difficult to ignore. I don’t think crying in front of them, or showing the slightest tear will be an option. Not while we are still strangers.

It’s not that difficult subjects don’t arise in Hebrew school. In fact, it’s these really sensitive topics that have motivated my past students. They really open up and we have amazing conversations. (That’s what I love about the seventh grade, they never cease to surprise you on what they can handle.)

Kids in the seventh grade are ready to not to be kids anymore. After all, it’s the year of their B’nei Mitzvah, their coming of age. They want to talk and they told me last year that sheltering them does them a disservice anyway.

 I remember last year, sitting on the floor with my seventh graders, discussing the Holocaust with them and how the lessons they learned from the Shoah still mean something to them today. But that discussion happened on one of the last days of school, not the first.

So, come Sunday, I’ll stick to my plan. Unless the plan needs to change. In the Talmud, the rabbis instruct to “go with the way a child wants to learn.”  

So, if the topic comes up, I’ll share. I’ll tell them that a decade ago, I was in the middle of filling out my own Rosh Hashanah cards, wishing friends and family a happy New Year when the planes hit.  I’ll tell them that I wrestled with the choice of sending those cards out at all, but in the end I did. Because that Rosh Hashanah, praying for the New Year seemed more important than ever before.

So if I have to scrap my whole lesson so we can gather on the floor, open up and talk about how to approach the madness and the sadness of this day, so be it.

Then, perhaps the next week, they will derive some meaning during Tefilot, or prayers.

They really will thank G-d for sustaining them and giving them the energy for waking to a new day.

They really will thank G-d for making them free and not a slave.

They really thank G-d for strenghening us with courage.

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About stacylynngittleman

I have been a reporter and public relations professional for over 30 years, specializing in profile features and investigative longform writing. During my career I've profiled WWII Honor Flight Veterans, artists and musicians and have written on topics that range from environmental and gun control issues to Jewish culture. Click around on my writing samples plus read my blog on my personal life raising three kids over 27 years and three cities.

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