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A look back at what 9/11 meant to schoolkids five years ago

I wrote this in 2008, while working for the Sun-Times’ south suburban sister paper, the SouthtownStar. It stays with me still as a sharp reminder to always ask kids what they think, know, remember.

Sept. 11, 2001, was a day without recess – if you ask 11th graders.

Other noteworthy stuff happened, too: Teachers cried. TV news played at school. Flags popped up everywhere. No one went outside. And no one learned anything that day.

Those same high schoolers now are ravenous to learn everything about that day. For the truth about conspiracy theories. For confirmation of morbid rumors. For footage of explosions. For all the details that, seven years ago, their parents kept from the then-third and fourth-graders.

Like how the airplane pilots died not in the crashes but from having their throats slashed in cockpits by the hijackers, Dave Ernst told his students this week as they studied biographies of the passengers who took Flight 93 down in a Pennsylvania field far from the intended U.S. Capitol.

At Lincoln-Way Central High School in New Lenox, in a class called American Originals, Ernst uses gripping stories of flesh-and-blood individuals to hook his 11th- and 12th-graders on the historic day they lived through and then refers back to it for context.

“The thing is with this, it’s the biggest event that happened historically to this point,” he said. “The kids we have now – they got sheltered from what really happened, and they want to know more. The whole thing with the media – the pictures of people jumping off the building was too graphic to show – but it happened,” Ernst said. “(9/11 footage) was on, and parents were turning it off or making them leave – they want to know more. That just increased their curiosity.”

Facts for rumors

At Shepard High School in Palos Heights, junior honors history students pepper Gina Hanna with questions about conspiracy theories – details about the planes, about the Pentagon catching fire, about rumors a bomb dropped in western Pennsylvania instead of a plane.

“How many of you feel like there’s still misconceptions about what happened?” she asked her 32 juniors.

Hands shot up.

“Those are the things I’d like to kinda straighten out with you today. So every Sept. 11 , you can remember what happened with correct facts so you know what you’re talking about.”

Chris Ward, 17, asked about footage he had watched the night before.

“There was a controversy about how the plane wasn’t just hijacked, there was dynamite in the side of the building of the Pentagon,” he said.

Hanna fired up clips produced to show how a large jet – not missiles or a bomb or fighter jets – hit the Pentagon and crash landed in a field in western Pennsylvania. Then choruses of “Whoa,” “Oh my God,” punctuated another video showing a jet slamming into the second tower in New York.

Hanna said that while preparing the lesson, she still tried to shield her son, a third-grader, from the footage she was watching. Finally she relented.

“I need to know the truth,” the boy told her.

Thoughtful lessons

School curricula or textbooks don’t uniformly include 9/11 as they would World War II or the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Many Southland teachers find a way to acknowledge the anniversary or mention the attacks in the context of other lessons.

Rick Mundo, a teacher at Eisenhower High School in Blue Island, asked students to reflect on “We will never forget” and write about what they remember.

So did Jerling Junior High School teacher Jill Patti in Orland Park. But Patti treads very carefully around squeamish details when talking to her sixth-grade social studies students about life since the attacks – how desperate workers threw themselves out of the Twin Towers rather than burn to death. She casually glides over questions about the jumpers, focusing her kids on things like how Americans treated each other with kindness in the aftermath of the attacks.

Century Junior High School teacher Victoria Russell monitors what she shows to her Orland Park eighth-graders, who would have been in first grade in 2001. Sept. 11 will come up again on Friday during a weekly current events discussion and as a reference point when talking about the Middle East. She plays a video of planes hitting the World Trade Center and other news clips. But the tape cuts before the towers collapse.

“Some of the video stuff is too depressing,” she said.

Sadness lingers

Still things get emotional for the older kids, too, even though 9- 11 has been part of almost their entire lives. Munro’s student Zatausha Watts cried a little after reading her essay on what Sept. 11 felt like.

“It hurts to even talk about it. At the time I questioned why they were crying and why this happened. I was too young to understand. My classmates’ eyes were glued to the television as if they were giving out free candy for the one who could stare the longest. They were as confused as I was. All around me, all I heard was, how could this be?” the 16-year-old read.

“I feel terrible, like as if I were there every time I talk about it.”