Remembering 9/11 has grown more and more intriguing and challenging in the past couple of years as most of my students were infants or very small toddlers when the event that changed everyday life for all Americans happened. I asked for students to explore what they did know about the events of that gut-wrenching day 16 years ago. Many knew there were four airplanes. None new there were 19 hijackers or that they were mostly Saudis. They knew Osama bin Laden was behind it, but few could name his terrorist network, al Qaeda. But all were shocked by the images of “The Falling Man,” a series of photos by Richard Drew of one of the Twin Towers victims leaping to death.
Tom Junod wrote an amazing piece for Esquire about the famous images last year.
I asked students to tell The Falling Man’s story. I just wanted to see what they knew of storytelling techniques. Most struggles to get the first line down, but some wrote feverishly for the 5-7 minutes allotted to them. Many opted to write from the point of view of the man in the photo. A few opted to write in third person omniscient. Some chose to tackle the image head on and start in the middle, while others chose to start at breakfast that morning and try to work up to the terrifying climax. Most students understood the basics of good storytelling. And this picture spoke volumes to them. Even the kid who proclaimed that he had a hard time starting because “I don’t know anything about it” admitted that the image spoke the proverbial thousand words.
Before segueing away from our 9/11 remembrance exercise to launch us into a unit on storytelling/narrative writing, I shared an emotional piece of slam poetry with the kids. Most of the kids left class today understanding that while they didn’t live the event, even though they had no working memory of the event–they understood the emotion of the event. They opened their eyes and their ears to the stories of others who did live and remember the event. The impassioned poem by Mike Rosen prompted silence. Then gulps as students fought back tears. They got it.
Mike Rosen “When God Happens”
Before the towers collapsed into a white noise
of bodies and strewn paper,
there were people in the windows. They clutched family photos
and they jumped, became human tombstones
falling into the shrapnel of a city covered
in the ash of its own citizens,
a city shapeless and somewhere else, writhing as it fell.
That night, I feared everything but darkness,
so I slept on the floor at the foot of my father’s bed —
it’s a place where monsters and planes are made easy work of.
That morning, I went to the window, I wiped my hand along the sill,
I watched my fingers turn grey and I thought: “bodies.”
But I didn’t want to wash them, I wanted to go to the roof, I did.
I saw the smoke crawling into a postcard, the smell was everywhere.
I wondered if they would change the postcards now,
put smoke where once were towers, and then address them to our relatives
in Texas and Carolina where they were rearing to go to war
and say I wish, I wish you were here.
I wish you could see these clouds forming under the clouds
I wish you could touch this smell with your nostrils every time you breathe
I wish you could run your hand along your window and wonder
how the bodies got through the door
and see what it’s like to live in the most Beverly Hills version of awar zonee
and realize what war might just look like, feel like,
taste like, in your breakfast cereal,
when you realize you’re sitting there digging Cheerios out of a bowl
when they’re digging bodies out of the ground.
That day was not about your god or their god
because when God happens, no one is right.
These were times when we lied to our children.
When you lie to children, no one is right.
I can’t make this any clearer to you. That day had no black or white,
‘cause under that rubble everyone was grey.
Under that rubble was no red, whites, or blue.
Under that rubble was just grey.
Now I know New Yorkers, we talk a lot — sorry!
But I’m taking this one back for my home
because under that rubble was not your country,
under that rubble was our city, our town,
our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, and daughters.
That day, no one in New York grabbed rifles,
we grabbed bandanas and shovels and we started digging
because our lives were underneath that rubble
and the firemen were looking for the bodies.
It has been ten years, and my friend is still looking for her father’s body
Your war is not helping her find him.
Your war has done nothing but add to the list of little boys like me,
who wish to sleep at the feet of their father’s beds.
My father worked nowhere near the Trade Center, but I didn’t know that then.
What I knew was that the phone lines were down
and that until I heard his voice, so was he.
Your war has done nothing but add to the list of boys
in New York, in Iraq, in Afghanistan
The list of boys who are still waiting
for their fathers to come home.