Westward Movement

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tackling the tough topics

I spent the week contemplating discussing the 10 year anniversary of 9/11 with my students. I wasn't sure just what I wanted my kids to take home with them, knowing that several had never been exposed to the topic, and that many had tiny bits of knowledge of the event. Yet, as I told the kids this afternoon, I talk to them about everything, and I wouldn't feel comfortable if we didn't discuss this very important piece of America's history. My students have so much to say. They are so honest, so open, and so curious to know what happened, how it has impacted us, and what will come to be as they grow up. After a long discussion, I shared with them the Judith Viorst poem, "If I Were In Charge Of The World." Several questions followed as I asked them to write their own poems with the same title, keeping in mind the conversation we'd just had. Tomorrow we'll share poems, and I will be ever so amazed at their creativity and thoughtfulness, and ever more confident that if we turned our world over to 10 year olds, we'd be in a far better place.

During our discussion today, I shared my own 9/11 experience with my students. I woke that morning, as I do every morning, to NPR. The radio popped on with the words "A plane has just flown into the World Trade Center." I thought I was hearing things at first, and thought it might be a joke of some sort, however horrible. Obviously, this was no joke. As I prepared for work, I thought frantically of friends and family in NY. My sister was traveling through the city on business, and it took a while to get in touch with her. I also realized I was going to face confusion, fear and millions of questions from my students.

I arrived early, and turned on the television in my classroom. As students arrived, I turned it off. The images were so graphic. I knew most of my kids would have seen these already, and indeed, as students entered the classroom, many were crying and telling me they'd seen people jumping out of buildings. As a teacher, one plans carefully, and follows a particular course of study. Then along comes something so astounding, so horrifying, and your plans are for naught. Additionally, you have to think on your feet - addressing what comes up with not even a second's warning. 

Melvyn was one of my third graders. He'd just turned eight. He was, and still is, kind, considerate, and brilliant. His father had brought him to school that morning, and sat in the classroom with us as I brought all the kids to the rug in a close circle. With fifth graders, and sometimes "ultra-cool" fourth graders, getting them all to sit together on a rug, and to sit closely, is a challenge. On this day, they could not get close enough. The kids had so many questions, asking me to "explain things in kid language." One of my students asked why anyone would fly a plane into a building because he'd know he would die, too. Before I could open my mouth, Melvyn asked if he could explain. His father and I exchanged glances, and I told him to go ahead. I paraphrase here ... it's been a long time and I don't recall his exact words, but I'm awfully close. 

"The pilots were willing to sacrifice themselves because what they believe in and their hatred of America is more important than their own life." (At this point, a student asked what sacrifice meant). "To sacrifice is to give up something really, really important for something or someone else that's even more important. These guys are probably controlled by someone who tells them what to do, and they didn't care that their life would be taken, too." He said quite a bit more, explaining the events that had occurred that morning with all the presence and capacity of any adult. His father and I sat and listened to him in awe. He was invaluable as a source of support for his peers that day, and for many days to follow. (As the eldest sibling of then four, now six, he'd had much opportunity to demonstrate leadership qualities)!

For the rest of the day, my students drew pictures, talked in large and small groups, cried and hugged, and sat closely together. They asked question after question ... of Melvyn and of me. 

Ten years later, 9/11 and Melvyn are entwined in my memory. I can't think of one without the other. And on this, the eve of what would have been my mother's 72nd birthday, there is much sadness. I thank Melvyn for being a model of grace on that fateful day as he and all of us experienced grief, pain, and confusion. I thank him even more for those same lessons that that guide me, personally. This is for you, Melvyn. I know you won't mind my telling your story. 

If I were in charge of the world
I'd cancel oatmeal,
Monday mornings,
Allergy shots, and also Sara Steinberg.

If I were in charge of the world
There'd be brighter nights lights,
Healthier hamsters, and
Basketball baskets forty eight inches lower.

If I were in charge of the world
You wouldn't have lonely.
You wouldn't have clean.
You wouldn't have bedtimes.
Or "Don't punch your sister."
You wouldn't even have sisters.

If I were in charge of the world
A chocolate sundae with whipped cream and nuts would be a vegetable
All 007 movies would be G,
And a person who sometimes forgot to brush,
And sometimes forgot to flush,
Would still be allowed to be
In charge of the world. 

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