The morning of Sept. 11, 2001 started off as any other for Neuqua Valley High School social studies teacher Tom McManamen. It was first period, and he was teaching in B221 when someone came up to him and said “something big just happened in New York.”
At 8:40a.m. EDT on Sept. 11, 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) notified the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s Northeast Defense Sector (NORAD) about a suspected hijacking of American Airlines Flight 11, set to travel to Los Angeles from Boston’s Logan International Airport. Six minutes later, their suspicions were confirmed when the flight crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Within 17 minutes, United Airlines Flight 175 had crashed into the south tower.
Attacks continued throughout the morning with American Airlines Flight 77 striking into the Pentagon at 9:40a.m., and United Airlines Flight 93 descending into a Pennsylvania field at 10:07a.m. These four hijackings were an act of terrorism against the United States conducted on Sept. 11 by terrorist group al-Qaida, killing over 3,000 people and injuring more than 6,000.
The destruction of the Twin Towers spread debris, dust and rubbish across the metropolitan area.
McManamen, like many others, watched the events unfold on a small television set in his classroom. Almost every network had been broadcasting for 93 hours straight, sharing facts as they received official intelligence. Relatively no one knew what was going on, not even the reporters, and it wasn’t until 9:31a.m. that President George Bush could categorize the hijackings as an “apparent terrorist attack on our country.”
“I remember going home and just talking to my wife because we hadn’t had our son yet. We were just walking and just numb and talking like ‘what’s going on?’ There were no airplanes in the sky. Normally around here, you hear airplanes, and I felt like we were in a completely different world. It was a sad day.”
Twenty years have passed since that same sad day, and current Neuqua students have no understanding of 9/11 aside from stories that they’ve heard from teachers. For adults, 9/11 is a flashbulb memory, a memory defined by the American Psychological Association as “a vivid, enduring memory associated with a personally significant and emotional event, often including such details as where the individual was or what he or she was doing at the time of the event.” For children, 9/11 is a day where they are reminded to mourn the thousands lost their lives, without even knowing them.
But the fact that the younger generation wasn’t alive at the time of the attacks shouldn’t prevent them from commemorating 9/11 and understanding its impacts. The Neuqua Valley community is located in Illinois and yet it continued to feel the aftermath of the tragedy that occurred in the Northeast metropolitan area. The world as we know it was created in the aftereffects of 9/11—ripples of 9/11 are all around us in some way, even as the years pass.
The first impacts of the events that transpired on Sept. 11, 2001 could be seen throughout the halls of Neuqua Valley. With some teachers making derogatory comments towards who they believed to be the perpetrators of the attacks and targeted students feeling disheartened by those words, it was hard not to be burnt in the flames that caught the Twin Towers.
Mcmanamen recalls how “the principal at the time said ‘nobody gets to talk about this in class,’ and we’ve never been ever told that. Except for [the] social studies [department] because this is [our] area of expertise.”
“[Between] the kids, there were angry people… I had several students not long after [9/11] join the military because they wanted to defend the country. But others were, again, seen as the perpetrators, even though they had zero to do with it but the stereotype; it was weird. The kids were emotional as much as the adults were.”
48% of children throughout the United States were reported to be upset by the events of 9/11 in a survey conducted by the National Study of Americans’ Reactions to September 11. In another study pursued at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Dr. Michael Otto and his colleagues found that 5.4% of children and 1.2% of parents had a consistent diagnosis of PTSD, and 18.7% of children and 10.7% of parents showed some symptoms of PTSD as a result of watching media coverage of 9/11.
Otto’s studies helped conclude that “even indirect exposure to traumatic events can increase the likelihood of developing PTSD in populations that may be considered vulnerable, such as children.” Psychology professor and researcher Dr. Matthew Tull consequently encouraged parents to monitor their children’s media consumption, while also opening up conversations about events to help children cope with and understand them.
Even without knowing about the necessity of these discussions, Jeffery Walz who was an 18-year-old recent graduate of Neuqua and who is currently a social studies teacher, was part of open conversations about 9/11. Walz still remembers hosting an Austrian exchange student at the time, who was scheduled to return home three days later. Many of the visiting students were very scared because they had to get on planes right after such an event.
“I always think about the next morning [after 9/11]. A bunch of families that were hosting these Austrians got together at Egg Harbor Cafe in Downtown Naperville over breakfast because a lot of the Austrians were obviously very scared… and we wanted to meet up for them to give them a chance to be together and also for the American families to think ‘alright, these kids are here for who knows how much longer, what can we do for them to just, you know, feel safe?’ So that was a good experience right there, but then, as we were leaving, it’s so weird it feels like a Disney movie or something, but the Naperville Central marching band was marching through Downtown Naperville playing patriotic songs, and they did a little impromptu concert. These 20 Austrians start singing the American National Anthem, and that was so weird to me because I don’t know the Austrian National Anthem… and a bunch of them were crying and I was like ‘oh it’s okay, the planes will be safe’ just trying to comfort them with that practicality, and their response was ‘no, no, no, that’s not why we’re crying. This is such a tragic event.’ Like obviously, it’s sad for the United States, but this is sad for the free world—the ideals of democracy.”
The empathy displayed by the Austrians and consistent themes of patriotism were all parts of the rally-round-the-flag effect, a call described by Walz as the determination of Americans to “come back together as a country.”
“I always point out, especially in my government classes, that this attack happened less than a year after arguably the most controversial election in US History… George W. Bush legally won, but it went to the Supreme Court. People were very angry, disappointed, disenchanted by that. So, George W. Bush came in very unpopular, and then all of a sudden, this event happens, and it’s almost like Americans were like ‘let’s reprioritize.’ We put the politics aside, and we comforted each other.”
These ideas of support were implemented by the Social Studies department at Neuqua Valley through discussions. In order to open up a conversation, teachers like McMamanen began to open up to their students about their personal thoughts and emotions regarding the tragedy.
“What we really kind of figured was the best thing was to talk about how we were feeling. Because really up until then… there was this ‘you had to keep a distance with the kids’ and that meant not really showing emotions, and most of us just began sharing how we were feeling at that time… I never really did that before, so there was more of that. There was more of really talking it through, so that was a good element, I suppose. But also in another way I suppose, like if a student would share ‘I felt as though my religion was being stereotyped’ then we could talk about that too and be like ‘you see this stereotype being harmful.’”
Talking through these feelings in an academic context proved to be beneficial for many students. Teacher-led discussions allowed for personal conversations without judgement and rashness but also allowed for classes to rationally and logically work through their thoughts.
“We brought up, for instance, examples of Sikh people being attacked in New York City and other places, and I’d say number one: is it fine to attack someone just because of their religion?… and number two: how ignorant are we if we’re attacking a Sikh person for being a Muslim? That means we don’t know anything. We don’t understand anything. We don’t understand religious dress if we do that.”
Productive conversations like these have continued into more recent school years often in an attempt to make students understand how hysteric 9/11 truly was. Each year, incoming students are younger, and now, all Neuqua students weren’t alive to know or remember what occurred. This has caused teachers to attempt to allow students to “live” the day by watching official news reports and seeing how people reacted.
“I try to get my students to realize the scope and tragedy of the day and then how to take a breath and have a measured reaction appropriately,” Walz says. “I think at the time that can be tough. I think that when we don’t take that breath and that measured approach, then things like targeting groups unjustly happen.”
For adults like Walz, “it was a very surreal day because [he] had nothing else in my life to compare it to. Nothing like that had ever happened, so it was an unbelievable day.” For students, it seems remotely impossible to connect to such an experience, but the tragedy behind it remains.
“I think that would be my takeaway: look at the fact that it was obviously a very tragic day. We were able to come together as a country and say ‘hey, for one, we’re sad’ and comfort each other. The mistakes that happened—I want to learn from those mistakes and make sure they don’t happen, even if that means drawing connections to [events] like the pandemic and seeing groups unfairly targeted and that puts it into perspective and hopefully we learn from that.”
To put it into perspective, Sept. 11, 2001 was inherently analogous to Neuqua’s dismissal from school due to COVID-19 on March 13, 2020. Think about it: it’s easy to remember where we were when it was announced that we would be home for two weeks, and we saw the pandemic lead to a rise in Anti-Asian violence in America but also a rise in care for our fellow Americans. We began to consider the world and people around us; we began to connect with each other and unite for justice and care in the wake of violence like the murder of George Floyd and in an attempt to get the government to listen to how we were feeling sitting at home. Those same patterns existed after 9/11.
We lost our outdoors to the pandemic, but we gained a sense of community. We lost iconic American buildings to 9/11, but we gained a sense of patriotism. For every life lost during the pandemic, there was a stronger relationship built between people and their loved ones. For every life lost during 9/11, there was a memorial built to commemorate their life.
The aftereffects of COVID-19 will likely define our generation’s youth for the years to come—it’s something that we will remember. That may be how adults feel about 9/11: it’s something that they’ve carried with them for the past twenty years. We may not carry the memory of 9/11, but we understand its trauma and its significance because of our own experiences, so we must never forget.