Sep. 12—BLUEFIELD — For millions of Americans, the events of Sept. 11, 2001 were defining moments in their lives, but the day is only words, relatives' recollections and videos to millions of students who were not yet born when terrorists attacked New York City and Washington D.C. They might know the date, but today's teachers are showing them why it's significant.
Like many of his colleagues, social studies teacher Wyatte Morris of Bluefield Middle School remembers what he was doing the day hijacked airliners were used to attack the United States. He compared 9/11's impact on the nation's collective memory to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Morris was a student at Bluefield State College on Sept. 11, 2001.
"It's a cliche, but everybody remembers what they were doing," Morris said. "It's kind of my generation's JFK moment. I was in college at the time and I was running late for school that day, and so I didn't have time to turn on the radio, didn't have time to make coffee or any of those things. And so I get to school and I get to my classroom and I notice that the parking lot was empty, like really empty. And so I look on the door of the classroom and I just see a sign that said Classes Canceled. Nothing else."
Not knowing what to think of these developments, Morris went home and turned on his television. The news was on every channel. At first, he thought an accident had happened at the World Trade Center.
"It was right after the first tower was hit and before the second tower," he recalled. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It was a shocking event. No words can really describe what you feel at that time."
The events of Sept. 11, 2001 and the aftermath of that day are now part of school curriculums. Morris includes those lessons for his sixth-grade students.
"We've always done it since I've been in the classroom," he said. "We've always mentioned it in some capacity, but it's state mandate now; it is a requirement that we cover it in school. It's not a content standard, something we have to get in, but something they want to make sure the kids are aware of. Every grade level has their content standard that you have to hit, and they want to make sure you include it in some way near the anniversary."
Most students recognize the term 9/11, but they recognize it the same way they might recognize a famous name like Sherlock Holmes. They know the name, but nothing about the person.
"They know it, but they don't know it," Morris said.
The sixth-grade students, usually between 10 and 13 years old, did not experience 9/11, but they are still hear firsthand accounts of that day, Morris said.
"A lot of their parents are my age (40), and it can be difficult, especially with kids who are in middle school and younger, because it's hard to express to them the events and the reality of what happened and still keep it age appropriate," he stated. "I feel the teachers in my school and the area do a great job through tailoring their discussions."
"I will tell you that in my classroom, I try to teach my students that history is alive and inescapable," Morris continued. "And so what I have them do is generate interview questions like they're a reporter and ask somebody who was alive at the time, a person of their choice; and it shows them that everybody has a place in history even if you're just experiencing it or telling about it."
Speaking to a person who has lived through an event like 9/11 gives students a chance to appreciate the impact it had on history.
"You can hear the sound of their voice, you can see them relive it," Morris said. "It's not something you can get from a textbook."
In the past, Morris would invite a veteran to speak with his students about 9/11, but this experience had to stop during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stephanie Bragg, who teaches civics and AP government to 12th grade seniors at PikeView High School, can also share her own 9/11 experiences with her classes.
"I remember that I had graduated from college and was at home when a friend called me and said, 'Hey, do you know what's going on?' So I turned on the news like every other American and was actually watching when the second plane hit the tower. My kids have talked about it a little bit today: the fear you felt, what's happening, why is it happening?" Bragg said.
Like Morris, Bragg said that while her students didn't experience that day, they can still hear firsthand accounts. While the students are 17 or 18 years old, they have mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and other members of their families that experienced 9/11 and served during the War on Terror in places like Afghanistan.
"Obviously, our whole world had changed and they see that because their families have been there, so I think it's more real to them," Bragg said.
A program that tells students about the experiences Medal of Honor recipients had while serving their country is a big part of teaching the lessons about 9/11.
"One of the things I do is called the Medal of Honor Curriculum," Bragg said. "Basically, the Medal of Honor Society had interviewed veterans from World War II to our present day, and what I do is we talk about citizenship and courage and patriotism; and I used the video vignettes to show how that played out for the person that I'm profiling."
One vignette is about Woody Williams of West Virginia, who was presented the Medal of Honor after the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.
"Watching the one on Woody Williams from Monroe County is pretty exciting," Bragg said. "The ones that I show are the recipients from the War on Terror. It really makes an impact on them because they can relate to it. And with the age of Hollywood, we have some movies about some of those battles that make it really visual."
Bragg said that she works personally with PikeView High School's JROTC program.
"Our instructor, of course, is excellent with discussing national safety and patriotism and citizenship," she stated. "I've had many students enlist in the different branches of service and right now we have a 2020 graduate, PFC Josh Baldwin, who is part of the 82nd Airborne who got put in Afghanistan a month ago. He's in Kuwait now. For me personally, to have a student who walked the hallways of this high school for four years serving in Afghanistan makes 9/11 even more real to me. I'm married to a veteran who did two combat tours, Matthew Bragg in the U.S. Army Infantry. It definitely makes things more real and personal when you know the men and women who have served."
When students learn about the events surrounding 9/11, they also learn that they can make a difference.
"One of the neat things about the Medal of Honor Curriculum is that the recipients honor ordinary citizens who do extraordinary things," Bragg said. "Monday or Tuesday we will show the students a vignette on Rick Rescorla, a citizen recipient who worked for security at Morgan Stanley in the Twin Towers. He was the one who trained his employees how to do an evacuation and saved almost 2,687 employees. The reason I show this is to encourage students that we can do extraordinary things and make a difference in our community and our world. We call can make where we are a better place. That's just how I tend to approach 9/11. It's a real blessing to live in this part of the country where we have many who are so willing to serve."
— Contact Greg Jordan at firstname.lastname@example.org