Dreadful Date: Talking To Children About 9/11
It’s the week after Labor Day, which for New York City parents means mostly what it means for parents everywhere: new shoes, sharp pencils, please let that obnoxious kid be in the other class, who’s doing pick-up on Thursdays? Adrenalin is up, temperatures are creeping down, new routines are taking shape. And suddenly it’s September 11.
I remember when I was little my parents and their friends would play an occasional round of “Where Were You When Kennedy Was Shot.” Each had a set piece to recite, smoothed by time into a memory-pebble, a piece of history proudly and sadly displayed for the wondering younger generation. I can imagine a time, a decade or so from now, when the planes and the towers become our generation’s JFK, a day that grows in symbolic weight as it recedes in time.
But nine years is not enough time for pebble-smoothness. Every year in the Five Boroughs September 11 lands in the middle of the first weeks of school, and no one quite knows what to do about it.
It’s like discussing sex: every family has their own approach, their own baggage, their own bias. Introducing the subject too early is unnecessary. Not talking about it is cowardly. Going into too much detail is frightening. Oversimplifying robs the event of meaning, and insults our children’s intelligence.
As a parent, I got off easy: my eldest was a toddler in 2001. We didn’t have to explain anything to her as we crouched by the TV that morning, five miles north of the towers. If it seemed surreal to us to mingle with the dazed crowds in Central Park in the middle of a Tuesday morning-the sky bluer than blue except when you dared to look south-it seemed like business as usual to her.
We’ve taken the slow-drip approach over the years, starting with the bare facts and embellishing as necessary when questions arise. I don’t know how to explain religious fundamentalism to a 10-year-old girl and a seven-year-old boy growing up in an agnostic household, so I’m not going there just yet. This is where the sex analogy fails, at least at our house: a 10-year-old needs to understand the facts of life, but she doesn’t necessarily need to ponder the horrors humans can inflict on one another.
Others take a different approach. On October 11, 2006, a small plane piloted by a Yankee pitcher crashed into an apartment building on 72nd and York, blocks from our apartment, just as school was getting out. An endless procession of wailing emergency vehicles raced past as I pushed my son’s stroller toward my daughter’s school. “There was a plane crash by the river,” I told them as we walked home. “I don’t know if anyone was hurt but we’ll find out.” The whole thing had faded from their minds by dinnertime.
One of my son’s four-year-old classmates lived across the street from the crash, and watched the aftermath from his living room window. His father came to pick-up a few days later. “Oh, it was just awful,” he said. “My son saw the whole thing, so of course then we had to tell him what happened with the Twin Towers.”
“Yeah, we had to tell him all about it, and he had nightmares, and it was really hard.”
My daughter is starting to read novels about children in the Holocaust, or children in the Civil War, and we are starting to talk about battlefields and refugees and terror. It’s all still fairly remote. Last year in fourth grade they studied the Three Monotheistic Religions, the same curriculum I studied at the same school 30 years ago. They read Old Testament stories and learned about cathedral architecture. When they got to Islam they memorized snippets of the Koran and painted tiles with geometric patterns like the ones that adorn traditional mosques. They had a Middle Eastern Feast. Aside from the Crusades, there was little mention of religion as a root cause of human conflict.
Neither of my children’s schools has ever acknowledged September 11. I can’t blame them-it would be impossible to do it in a way that felt appropriate to all. This year it falls on a Saturday. My daughter is going to a birthday party, oblivious of the date. But now that her friends are starting to turn 11, it’s time to open the discussion a little wider, go a little deeper.
Talking about sex was so much easier.
Every September brings a new crop of 9/11-related literature. I have no recommendations for children, but here are a couple of thought-provoking adult titles.
Hiroshima in the Morning, by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto (Feminist Press, $16.95)
Novelist Rizzuto, whose mother was interned as a Japanese-American during World War II, left her husband and two small sons behind in Brooklyn for a six-month research fellowship in Japan in the summer of 2001. Immersion in the stories of Hiroshima atomic-bomb survivors helped her forget her mother’s encroaching dementia and her own tottering marriage, and then September 11 shifted her perspective in ways both devastating and liberating. A projected novel morphed into this quirky memoir, a meditation on war, motherhood, and the wake of explosions both literal and figurative.
The Report by Jessica Francis Kane (Graywolf Press, $15)
Though on the surface Kane’s elegant debut novel-a tightly constructed reimagining of a civilian tragedy in London’s East End during World War II-has little to do with September 11, it is prefaced with a quotation from the 9/11 Commission Report: “We want to note what we have done, and not done.” In March 1943, nearly 200 people were crushed to death at the entrance to a bomb shelter in Bethnal Green, on a night when no bombs fell. A young magistrate confronts the task of tracing the factors that led to so many needless deaths, and composes a report that is a masterpiece of carefully chosen truths. Kane’s sensitive and nuanced portrait of a stricken community resonates; like the residents of Bethnal Green, the American public in the wake of September 11 was hungry for a version of events that made sense.
Photo by Jens Grabenstein
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