JAMES CITY — Every year, around the second week of school, students across the country honor the memory of Sept. 11. Whether it be with a moment of silence, a day to wear red, white and blue, or with a special lesson in history class, students in high schools and colleges alike know no other start to their school year.
Yet for all the remembering, there are increasingly few actual memories of the day.
As the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaches, the event has shifted from a shared experience in school classrooms to an historic event.
Most students entering high school this year were either not born or were babies in diapers on Sept. 11, 2001. Seniors in high school weren't old enough to attend kindergarten at the time.
"The reality is that for these kids, this is history. This is not current events, this is history," said Dianna Lindsay, who teaches history at Williamsburg Christian Academy.
The lack of personal experience surrounding Sept. 11 forces teachers to change the way they approach the subject.
To feel or not to feel?
Nicole Throckmorton, an English teacher at Warhill High School in Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools, said teachers today must strike the balance between helping students feel the emotion of the day while also not expecting students to mourn a tragedy they never experienced.
"I guess it is very important to me that they don't feel the emotions I have because that feels sentimental and cheap and gross," she said. "And then you cheapen it, and it is too important for that."
Throckmorton said in the years immediately following the attacks, teachers may have done students a disservice by focusing too much on the emotions.
"In trying to honor and remember, maybe we didn't teach it so well because the emotion was so tangled up in it," she said. "When 10 years had passed I feel like we had a better remove and we could be less emotional about it."
In the years immediately following Sept. 11, teachers worked with classes of students who were cursing the perpetrators, recounting what it was like to see the towers fall or even mourning lost friends or family members.
As the years progress and the attack becomes another historic event to study, yawns become a greater threat than tears.
But Lindsay said while the emotions are less powerful, that can be a good thing.
"Kids today have a more balanced response because it is not so visceral," she said. "(Earlier) the response was, 'We are going to get 'em. Get 'em, kill 'em, we know who it was.'"
Many of the students in Lindsay's advanced placement U.S. History class said looking at pictures or videos of the event had helped them understand the emotion they saw their parents and teachers displaying.
"I was still a baby when it happened, but I listened to 9-11 calls from the building. It was really sad," Dexter Radcliffe, 15, said. "It was really upsetting because the man was upset, and he was saying he needed to see his family again, but the women on the other end couldn't do anything."
Jordan Wright, 15, said it wasn't until she went and visited the memorial in New York City that she really grasped the enormity of the day.
Zane Echols, 15, said the more he learns about the attacks, the more he feels for people who lived through it.
"I am getting more emotional about it instead of less," Echols said.
Several area teachers said it was difficult to cover the event thoroughly because of all the other standards of learning to cover.
"A lot of teachers do a bump-and-run on it because they have all this curriculum to cover," Throckmorton said. "With it usually falling in the first five to seven days of the school year, the timing is strange."
Jamestown Social Studies teacher Richard Ambler said Sept. 11 is not taught as its own unit.
"9/11 has retreated to the background in the sense that a moment of silence is held in schools and references are made to the event when domestic terrorism is discussed in government classes, history classes, etc.," Ambler wrote in an email.
Last year, Throckmorton emphasized how quickly the world changed on Sept. 11 by putting the events within the time frame of a class period.
"The plane hit first tower around 8:46, then both towers were down by 10:30. That is a class period," Throckmorton said. "And then we talk about how nothing has been the same since that 90 minutes."
On Friday, students in Lindsay's advanced placement U.S. History course looked at iconic pictures from American history and discussed their second-hand memories of the event. One girl said her mother held her for five days straight after the attack. Another boy said his family was living on a military base at the time and worried they would be attacked.
Throckmorton said, while for adults Sept. 11 marks a clear change in the world as we know it, for students born into the era of the War on Terror, there is no clear distinction of pre-9/11 world and post.
"There is a great political muddle," she said. "They can't separate the war in Iraq with the towers and the efforts in Afghanistan. It is all part of the war. I don't think there is clear demarcation."
9/11 lessons on campus
For as fuzzy or non-existent as a high school student's memory of Sept. 11 may be, their peers in college do not remember it with much more clarity. Most college sophomores would have been in kindergarten in 2001.
John McGlennon, a William and Mary Professor of Government and Public Policy, says that in the 15 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, teaching students about the event and its place in the context of American history has changed.
Back then, students in his classes saw the events play out and knew exactly what was going on.
"They would have their own experience with the new changes," he said.
Fifteen years later, students are disconnected with that phenomenon. Many were too young at the time to understand what was going on.
You've got to really paint the picture," said professor Lawrence Wilkerson, an Army veteran and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. "They don't have that visceral memory that said 'I've got to join the Army, or I've got to join the Navy. I've got to help my country.'"'
Explaining America now
What happened that day changed America, but since his students have grown up in the new version of that world, McGlennon has to explain how America used to be in relation to where it is now.
"You do have to spend a lot more time explaining how the world changed, how it changed the view of America's role in world affairs and the security of Americans," he said.
Those changes centered around how Americans saw their foreign counterparts.
"There were a wide range of civil liberties that became more controversial," McGlennon said. "Views about immigrants and those from other cultures became more arrogant."
Wilkerson teaches the attacks as they pertain to one of many "fateful decisions," in American history which involve men and women who die for state purposes.
He also acknowledged that his colleagues are fighting an uphill battle to explain the weight of that event as the years wear on.
"You have kids who don't know when the Civil War was, or they don't know if it was before or after World War I," he said. "I'm not saying the William and Mary kids are like that, but many are. It's a much more difficult task."
Erroneous information about the attacks and the circumstances surrounding them have become fodder for students who don't know better. McGlennon makes a point to let his students know to take what they see, hear and read with a grain of salt.
Wilkerson has also heard many questions in the years since that stem from shoddy information on the web.
"It became quite often I would hear something from a student. They would ask questions in a skeptical way," he said. "It's more of a query of me, of 'knock this down for me.'"
Students have raised the conspiracy theory, for example, that the towers did not fall due to the plane crashes alone, but also due to explosives planted the building.
McGlennon said, with a wealth of information available for students, it is crucial they consider the source.
"I always encourage that students not just accept at face value what they see," McGlennon said. "You need to understand the basis of the points being made, and what that organization may be trying to get across, be it politics or otherwise."
Wright can be reached at 757 345 2343. McKinnon can be reached at 757 345 2341.