On Friday, students and faculty in the Upper School gathered to reflect on the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Stefanie Santangelo, chair of the U.S. History and Religion Department, spoke about her experience that day and in the days and years following:
I remember the first time I saw 9/11 described in a history textbook. I was teaching AP U.S. History at an independent school outside of Washington D.C., and it was 2009. I was old enough to have seen other significant events that took place in my lifetime appear in textbooks — events like presidential scandals, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the toppling of the Berlin Wall. I could make sense of these instances; they fit neatly into predictable categories like regime change and flawed human behavior. I could intellectualize what happened, but I wasn’t emotionally connected to them.
The trauma and tragedy that took place on September 11 was different. In 2009, my students were old enough to have remembered the chaos and horror that struck that day. Being in such close proximity to the Pentagon and to downtown D.C., many had parents who worked for the Defense Department, the CIA, and for other federal agencies. My students remembered being deeply afraid, particularly those who could see the thick, black cloud of smoke that blanketed the area around the Potomac River. In the textbook, the images of the Twin Towers burning, accompanied by a half-page of text, seemed wholly inadequate to express what had taken place on that early autumn morning. The account that we read in class felt cold, divorced from the humanity of the day. After reading it, we set it aside.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was a second-year teacher getting ready for the second week of school. I was teaching middle school social studies outside of San Francisco, and I was eating breakfast around 5:30 a.m. Pacific Time, 8:30 a.m. on the East coast. My phone rang. It was my mother calling from Boston and she was frantic; I couldn’t quite make out what she was saying. I understood that a tragedy involving a plane flying into one of the Twin Towers had taken place and that there was grave concern about what more was coming. I was in utter disbelief. My first thought was of my friends who lived in Manhattan, some of whom worked in the Twin Towers. I couldn’t reach any of them, as cell towers around the city were jammed, completely overwhelmed by folks trying to get in touch with their loved ones. Eventually, I learned that all had evacuated safely. From my place 3500 miles away, I felt both removed from what was happening in the Northeast and also deeply connected because of my roots there.
Over the next several days, like so much of the nation and the world, I was glued to the news — intently listening to the unsteady voices of television reporters attempting to describe the indescribable to a stunned American public. We heard about the phone calls made by dozens of passengers on board Flights 93 and 175 to bid goodbye to their loved ones and to alert aviation officials to hijackings. We saw images of walls and fences papered with photographs of missing people and film of ash-covered survivors running shoeless through Manhattan’s streets looking bewildered. Out of the tragedy, we heard of the cosmic bravery and selflessness demonstrated by thousands of people who risked their lives to help total strangers. And yet all of these stories had been glossed over in the textbook account.
I had spent my entire adult life thinking, teaching and learning about history, and I couldn’t reconcile the lived experiences of Americans with the account of 9/11 conveyed in print. In that classroom in 2009, after we set the book aside, students began to share what they remembered from the day, how they felt, who they were with. They remembered waiting on pins and needles for news about their parents, aunts and uncles, and neighbors. They talked about the unsettling silence in their neighborhoods and how people gathered in each other's homes for comfort. We talked about how important it was that these stories be shared.
I was reminded about how incomplete the historical record often is. How complete can an account of an event be without knowing more about how people truly experienced it? We can try to unpack an event’s economic, social, and cultural consequences, but how do we articulate its nuanced and varied impact on people? How can our collective memory be more inclusive, more reflective of the true diversity of human feelings and experiences?
I ask these questions in hopes that you will do the same, that you will seek to broaden your scope of understanding by inquiring deeply of others, by looking beyond the printed text. At some point in your life, you, too, will have occasion to read accounts of events that have taken place in your lifetime. You may have already. You will reconnect to the emotions that you first felt, and you will be struck by how little of that can exist in the retelling of that event. I suspect that you have already learned that your reactions and feelings may often be at odds with how others interpret or remember a moment. When those occasions arise, remind yourself to ask questions and to listen deeply to the responses; model empathy and compassion for others. Imagine how doing so would result in the creation of narratives that reflect the complexity and fullness of our collective experiences.
And so as you move through your weekend, I hope you will pause to remember what took place on 9/11 — the loss of human life, the courage of thousands of first responders and citizens who rushed to aid those in distress, the love and care that was extended by so many. Visit the 9/11 memorial website, spend some time reading about and getting to know the people who experienced the events of that day firsthand. Speak their names, remember them and share their stories with others.