Brandon Harris remembers a time when many of his high school students couldn’t talk about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, without shedding tears.
“I actually had kids in my classroom who were there, they were in New York when it happened,” Harris said.
Harris, now a history teacher at Staunton River High School, started teaching in 2003 and for several years following the attacks, he’d have his students share their memories from that day.
As the years have gone by, Harris said, the way he’s taught about Sept. 11 has changed.
“I can’t ask that question anymore: ‘Where were you? Do you remember it?,’” he said.
The attacks used to be a shared trauma, but in recent years, Harris has been the only person in his classroom who was even alive on that day.
Harris laughed: “That makes me feel old.”
For Harris and other Lynchburg-area educators, this fact changes the way they teach about the subject.
“It’s truly, in every sense of the word, history,” Rustburg High School history teacher Michael Nagy said.
According to Crystal DeLong, supervisor of history, fine arts and world languages for Bedford County Public Schools, state and federal curriculum requirements do not require the events of Sept. 11 be taught in the classroom, but it comes up under other standards of learning, such as terrorism and foreign policy.
In Bedford County Public Schools, she said, teachers in grades three and up spend some time on or around the anniversary of Sept. 11 talking with their students about the attacks.
In younger grades, she said, there’s a question as to what’s appropriate to discuss, but around third grade, teachers start introducing the events to students.
“Clearly you’re having a very different discussion with a 12th grader than you are with a fourth grader,” DeLong said.
In younger grades — third through fifth — DeLong said discussions largely focus on the day’s heroes: the first responders. Those discussions, she said, often include local first responders, as well.
Students also may read children’s books about the day, explore the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, and learn about how the country pays tribute to the lives lost on that day, she said.
Karl Loos, head of the history department at Dunbar Middle School in Lynchburg City Schools and president of the Lynchburg Education Association, said at the middle school level, students are introduced to some of the other players from the day, the causes behind the events, how the country recovered and how that day changed America.
Loos said he plays some video from the attacks — such as the twin towers collapsing and some of the damage following the attacks — but not the more graphic footage.
In high school, DeLong said, students learn more specifically about the effects of the Sept. 11 attacks, such as the Patriot Act, the U.S. invasion into Afghanistan and the impact on Muslim Americans. Discussions about the targets of those attacks — the twin towers and the Pentagon — and what they symbolize also are part of the discussion for older grade levels.
Nagy teaches government to high school seniors in Campbell County and said he doesn’t sugarcoat the attacks.
He warns his students beforehand but thinks it’s important they watch even the most graphic moments from that day.
“For better or worse, it is never my job to censor this,” Nagy said.
Loos teaches seventh grade U.S. history and remembers watching the events of Sept. 11 unfold with his students in 2001.
“It was eerily quiet,” he said. “And the kids would just ask questions as they came to them.”
For Loos — who has been teaching at the school for 30 years now — not having the answers to his students’ questions felt odd. But, he knew it was a teachable moment.
“We knew whatever it was, it was historical,” he said. “It was important to help the kids understand the gravity of the situation.”
It was easier to talk about the events of that day early on, Loos said, when students had personal and emotional experiences tied to the day. As students who were too young or not born on Sept. 11 made their way to his classroom, Loos said it became more challenging.
How he teaches about the events of that day depends on the students he has in front of him, he said. Loos said he largely leads a discussion about the Sept. 11 attacks, relying on the students to add their perspectives and ask questions.
With his high schoolers, Harris still starts out the discussion the same way he did nearly 18 years ago: by trying to make it personal for his students. Harris said he spends time showing news footage from the attacks, as well as videos of people sharing their first-hand accounts of the day’s events.
“It puts a face to it,” he said.
While this generation of students have no memories associated with Sept. 11, their lives have been changed because of that event.
“I always tell my kids I’m sorry that they don’t know a world before 9/11,” DeLong said.
Now, with even some teachers in the classroom who were too young to have vivid memories of the Sept. 11 attacks, DeLong said the question of how to teach about an event that is “not a memory lived but history learned” is all the more pressing.
“It’s very important that we do talk about our history,” DeLong said. “And I think it becomes even more so important because we have a generation that has become separated from that.”
Loos said he works to make it relatable to students and how it affects their lives now by addressing current events — such as American troops leaving Afghanistan last month — and how Sept. 11 played a role in them. While they don’t have a memory of that day, he said, their lives are different than they would have been.
It’s a sentiment Nagy also uses as he teaches about Sept. 11 to his high schoolers.
“9/11 took place before they were born, but that totally changed the trajectory of how their lives were going to be if 9/11 hadn’t taken place,” he said.
Nagy said he works to help students understand how the world has changed in the 20 years since the attacks, from traveling to security at large events to the development of the Department of Homeland Security.
Harris said as the years have gone by, the students in his classroom seem more and more surprised and how the world has been shaped by the events of Sept. 11.
“To them, it can be almost shocking that things were that different,” Harris said.