Brenda Acosta isn’t sure who was president on Sept. 11, 2001, but the Hoover High School freshman knows that what happened that day was terrorism.
“9/11 is when a plane – was it one or two? – hit the towers in New York City,” said Acosta, 14. “It was like, hijackers. And they ended a lot of lives.”
Karen Alcaraz, also a freshman at Hoover High in Fresno, asked, “Wasn’t it ISIS?”
Alcaraz, 14, was not yet born when the Sept. 11 attacks happened, but she feels like it was recent.
“It wasn’t that long ago,” she said. “Everyone still has that memory. They still talk about it – that it will never be forgotten.”
The girls are part of the first class of high schoolers across the nation who were born after 2001. Fifteen years after the terrorist attacks that killed and injured thousands of Americans and launched the “war on terror,” schoolteachers are explaining the event that changed the country to people who weren’t alive to witness it or were too young to remember.
Wasn’t it ISIS?
Hoover High School student Karen Alcaraz
“There’s not really a thing you can relate it to in their lives. They haven’t experienced a tragedy on that level – a watermark event where life was one way and then drastically changed,” said Jeff Moore, who teaches history at Big Picture High School in Fresno. “I tell them this is something that interrupted our way of life and made us feel uncomfortable no matter where we were.”
Moore, who was a freshman at Bullard High School on Sept. 11, 2001, shows the live news footage of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center’s twin towers to his classes and asks what they would think – how they would feel – if they saw that on TV today.
“They don’t have any recollection of it, so I’m trying to make it personal so they understand the impact. And then it starts to sink in,” Moore said. “I remember my mom waking me up to tell me, and I watched live as the second plane hit. That’ll stick with ya.”
Some millennials who were only infants when it happened, like 15-year-old Presley Vu of Clovis, say Sept. 11 “doesn’t really feel like history.”
He and Ezra Sanchez, both students at Buchanan High School, said the first thing they think of when they hear about Sept. 11 is internet conspiracy theories they see on Facebook about how it was an inside job orchestrated by the U.S. government.
It’s weird to have lived through something so traumatic and teach it to people who don’t remember it at all.
Fresno State history professor Lori Clune
“It was a very tragic event,” Sanchez said. “It didn’t have an effect on me, but I know it had an effect on others who lost their loved ones.”
Vu says Sept. 11 is the reason “you’ve got to watch what you say at the airport now.” If a person says something suspicious, “the security will come take you out,” he said.
Sunnyside High School history teacher Jose Garza explains the ways that Sept. 11 changed the country – from the Patriot Act to anti-Islam rhetoric – so that students can better relate to the event.
“Putting it into context is important. We talk about how whenever a major tragedy happens, that fear is stoked, and there’s always a group of people that we suddenly become afraid of. With 9/11, the concern became with people from the Middle East,” Garza said. “I like to juxtapose what was before and what is now. They don’t understand how powerful an impact it had on people in general. They lump it in with everything else they learn in history.”
Lori Clune, a history professor at Fresno State, advises history teachers in training. She says for today’s educators, there is a big difference between teaching about Sept. 11 and teaching about Pearl Harbor.
There’s not really a thing you can relate it to in their lives.
Big Picture High School history teacher Jeff Moore
“It’s weird to have lived through something so traumatic and teach it to people who don’t remember it at all,” Clune said. “History tends to wait longer. We have to wait to have rational conversations. This is still not quite there yet – it’s still a special on CNN every year. That gets dicey. Fifteen years later, trying to get to (students) to understand how such a devastating event can prompt different reactions in people is about the best we can do.”
Clune said it’s good for teachers to use “irrational motivators” to teach children about real world events. The human experience is important to history, she said, suggesting that teachers compare Sept. 11 to something like the 2012 Colorado movie theater shooting – a collective memory of a tragic event that young students can use as a comparison.
“You have to try to capture the tremendous fear on September 11 of not knowing if there would be a September 12,” Clune said. “Most educators today have a particular memory of this. The challenge for us is always how you can teach the facts of the event but capture the feeling, because that’s what hooks them. When they know that you saw it and felt it, they hear you.
“If you don’t depict that fear, it’s very easy for them to say, ‘Well, that’s just crazy.’ ”
Emily Grace Hickingbottom, a student at Fresno High School, was 1 year old when 9/11 happened. But she says she knows it changed her life.
“I feel like I would’ve grown up in a less stressed world,” she said. “It scared everyone, and now everyone is so terrified. America is just stressed in general.”