September 11th: a moment rooted in place and time

I remember the first time I realized September 11th had become an event that would fade out of active memory and into the pages of history books, when one day, people would no longer say, “I remember where I was when September 11th happened.” I was teaching the “contemporary” half of a United States history class, and we’d reached the end of the semester, the present day, so to speak. It was the spring of 2011, almost ten years after the memorable event.

Standing in front of my class, though, I suddenly did the math. If my mostly freshman  students were approximately eighteen years old, they would have been roughly eight years old when 9/11 took place.  Did they recall where they were when it happened? How young would a student have to be before that memory of where you were could no longer be relevant?

When I was roughly eight, I sat in a second-grade classroom one wintry California afternoon, eagerly watching an event I’d anticipated for months. At the time, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up, so I felt especially excited to watch Christa McAuliff, a woman and a teacher (which made her eminently approachable and nice-seeming), head into space on the Challenger space shuttle. We had a television set up in our classroom so that we could watch the much-anticipated liftoff live as it happened.

I don’t remember exactly what I felt when the Challenger exploded. I think I might have been so very shocked and disappointed, that laughter mingled with my tears.  Did the teachers turn off the television? Were we sent home early? I don’t recall, but I know that’s the first “I remember where I was when” event that I remember, like my parents recall where they were when they heard about the assassination of President Kennedy.

Now, just a few years after that moment when I stood front of a U.S. history classroom, students learning about September 11th were even younger than than we eight-year-olds in 2001 or 1986. First-year students today were only toddlers when September 11th occurred, as their parents stumbled home from work in deep confusion, sadness, or distress. Their parents will remember where they were the morning of 9/11, but their children will not.

Not every “where were you” memory changes the world as much as September 11th. No matter how life-altering the suspension of the space shuttle program seemed at the time to a space-entranced kid such as myself, September 11th changed the world they grew up in far more than did the Challenger disaster.

Some events are so deeply tied to particular moments in time that they stay there, rooted in place as well. 

I remember where I was when the first Gulf War started (at home in my room, at my desk, writing in my journal), when the O.J. Simpson decision was handed down (in high school English class) and where I was when I read about the Newtown, CT, shooting (boarding an overnight train in Finland, glad to hold my daughter close as she slept).

How will we translate all of these days for our children? Which ones will stand out? No other “where were you when it happened” event that I can personally recall has quite the same yearly ritual of remembrance, and that places September 11th in its own unique, and uniquely fraught, category. When we say “never forget,” will 9/11 always need translating, never-forgetting — but what will we choose not to forget?

I end here, with questions, because sometimes questions are all I have — questions, and the memory of where I was when those question started, fourteen years ago, sitting in a lecture hall with red chairs, listening to random details of orientation for my masters’ degree program, as faculty came and went, hugging, wiping eyes, until at last they told us the news, and we sat there in red chairs, stunned.

I'd love to hear your thoughts!