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What Can Arts and Humanities Offer September 11 Observations?

The following is a guest blog post by Emma Stenberg, English Department Head, and Ruth Macaulay, History Department Head, who reflect on their own memories of September 11, 2001, and the ways in which Arts and Humanities offer a critical lens for the meaning-making at the heart of education.

Emma Stenberg

We each have a story about where we were when we learned about the events of September 11, 2001. My own features my eighth-grade Language Arts teacher, the second day of school, and many alarmed adults, busily conferring with each other to decide whether to roll out TVs and let us know what was happening. I’ve come to learn, though, over the last several years of reading a novel with American Lit classes which involves 9/11 as its historical context, that current students do not have their versions of this story; to them, these events really are historical. 

To understand this moment in near US history, our classes have consulted the works of American artists, writers, and filmmakers, as well as individuals in students’ own lives. We’ve relied on interviews with parents, relatives, and teachers for the “where we were when” stories, and students have come to class after, in some cases, their first intimate conversation about this subject. It is true that our students have their own versions of “where we were when” about a host of other, often tragic, events in recent memory, so they understand well what the adults in their lives are talking about when we describe how time stopped, how the country seemed to shrink, how that day gave context to the otherwise banal day-to-day; I remember, for instance, having bought a journal for my Language Arts class just the night before—one of its first entries would be a poem, the writing of which helped me process what was going on. 

Twenty years later, in our first classes after Saturday’s anniversary, I'll look to the written word again. My classes will read the work of writers who have also used poetry to make sense of the day’s senseless loss, as well as the ensuing years of heightened security, xenophobia, and war. Teaching in the Arts and Humanities involves the work of imagining possible futures. This week’s anniversary invites time to pause, imagining that our students will have much more peaceful, hopeful “where we were when” stories in their future. 

Ruth Macaulay

What I was doing on 9/11? That morning, I’d gone to Lincoln’s bookstore. When I got there the TV was on—I was told “something terrible” was happening in New York. Together, we watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center. I’d had dinner there at Windows on the World on my first trip to America from England in 1977. Soon everyone was stunned. I remember some of us were weeping, and my daughter (Lincoln Class of 1999) called from Brown to say “everyone on Thayer Street is crying” and begged to come home for the night.
Now, 20 years later, I ask my Grade 11 History students what topics they’d like to address in current events. Afghanistan comes up. I ask them what they know and what they want to know. Most of them ask why we were in Afghanistan in the first place. And then I realized—they were all born four years after 9/11. It’s history. Most of them hadn’t connected it with Afghanistan. I made a slideshow explaining Afghanistan’s history and geography and how both contributed to the failures there, of the Mongols, the Persians, the British, the Soviets, and now the Americans. We had a discussion. “Why did we stay so long?” they asked. Why didn’t we learn from history? Why did we negotiate with the Taliban? What would the Taliban do to women? Why, when we had ousted Al Qaeda and killed Osama bin Laden, did we stay on? And they had bigger questions, too, about the War on Terror, diplomacy versus war, and what people meant when they said 9/11 changed us forever.
“How should we memorialize 9/11?” I asked them. I got a range of answers and ideas. They wanted more than just remembrance. In keeping with the way Lincoln students approach learning, they wanted to make connections—in this case, between what happened on September 11, 2001, to the era that followed the event. They wanted to explore important questions. How do we define ourselves in the world today? How has all this impacted American democracy? What assumptions do we make about other nations, other cultures that are unlike our own?

On the twentieth anniversary of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Lincoln School honors those who lost their lives. We invite our community to join us in silent reflection on this solemn day in our country’s history. We thank Emma Stenberg and Ruth Macaulay for sharing their reflections in this week’s guest post.