MIDDLETOWN — Since many students were born after the tragic events of 9/11 and as the nation gets further and further away from that infamous date, shared stories in classrooms of “where were you when the towers fell” are not common.
To teach this history to a generation of students who didn’t experience it directly and to honor the 20th anniversary, Middletown High School's Air Force Junior ROTC cadets hosted a memorial ceremony Friday.
“The damage from 9/11 doesn’t just affect those who were there but future generations of American people,” said senior Andrew Tosten, corps commander of the JROTC. “The ripple effect of pain inflicted on that terrible day continues and hurts many families, friends and loved ones. Let us never forget that tragic day.”
For Karen Williams, a retired social studies teacher who taught primarily 11th and 12th graders at Lake Forest High School, the events of Sept. 11 remained a part of her curriculum even as she taught students who were not old enough to remember the attacks.
Having retired from education three years ago, Ms. Williams said she clearly remembers one of her students saying, “This will be the defining moment of my generation,” upon hearing the news of the hijackings.
Sept. 11, 2001, was the second day of school for Ms. Williams’ students. She said she recalls a teacher coming across the hall to tell her a plane had hit one of the twin towers. Her initial concern, she said, was for Dover Air Force Base and whether any of her students had parents there.
Once she knew her students were safe, Ms. Williams said she began addressing their questions and answering as honestly as she could.
“They want to talk about it. They want to see it,” she said. “Particularly with the older kids, you have to be as honest as you can. I told them, ‘This is what we’re seeing. I don’t know what’s happening. This is what they’re saying. We have to take it at face value, and hopefully, we’ll have more information as it comes available.’ (Teachers) were watching it at the same time (the students) were.”
Ms. Williams said her approach to 9/11 as it happened was to be as open with her students as she could.
“You try to talk about it,” Ms. Williams said. “At the same point, you continue on with what you’re doing because you want to have that normal routine. … It’s what some of the teachers needed, too.”
In the later years of her teaching career, Ms. Williams said she turned 9/11 into a lesson about how to find reliable sources of information.
“It’s great for me, as a social studies teacher, to be able to try to explain things and encourage students to ask questions, but I noticed, when I was still teaching, the further away we got from 9/11, the more kids were interested in conspiracy theories,” she said. “They didn’t see it happen live, so it was important to address with them how to look into sources and where they come from.”
For Matt Lindell — who teaches Advanced Placement U.S. history and U.S. government and politics at Cape Henlopen High School — teaching students about 9/11 can only happen if it contextualizes the events that led up to it.
“A lot of the time, we focus on the event itself and not the hows and the whys,” he said. “It’s hard to talk about the troops pulling out of Afghanistan if you know nothing about why we were in Afghanistan. You can’t understand Afghanistan unless you understand the events surrounding 9/11.”
Mr. Lindell, who also serves on Dover City Council, said he’s teaching a class this year that starts with history in 2000 and moves into current times.
“The kids get to see what’s going on in the present time, including 9/11 and the war on terror, so they get to understand what’s going on today,” he said. “As we go back in time, to other parts of American history, they can make connections and learn about the present day and what we’re living through.”
Mr. Lindell said teaching the full story of 9/11 is especially important given the almost “full-circle” moment that’s happening with U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan.
“I think there’s teachable moments with things that are happening in current history that can tie back to things that were important when I was in school — I was in college when 9/11 happened,” he said. “There’s events the kids might not be so familiar with. They’ve heard of them, but they’re connected to events that are occurring in their everyday lives today.”
Ms. Williams also said it was necessary for her to go through the timeline of what happened on 9/11, as well as what led up to the day. She said she also liked to focus on the changes that happened in America after the terrorist attacks.
“You can’t meet someone at an airport gate with a sign,” she said. “How that has changed through the course of the years, why you have to take your shoes off (at the airport). How one day can change your life, and you may not have even lived through it — you didn’t even experience it, but it still changes your life today.”