What I Want You to Know About 9/11

“Are you OK?” I ask you. You scratch gently again at your cheek, which is reddening a little from your touch, and then your hand jerks back toward your ear where it finds another itch to scratch.

“I’m fine,” you say, but you don’t appear fine to me. Apart from the sudden scratching at phantom itches, you are suddenly twitchy. Your eyes keep looking down at the table and then meeting mine again. You shift side-to-side.

“Is this making you upset or scared?” I ask. You tell me no. You say that you just have a little itch.

“OK,” I say with a sigh. And then I continue where I left off. “So, two of the planes flew into some big buildings. And the heat from that made the buildings fall down. A lot of people died, and it was a very sad day for the country…”

Your hand comes back up to the same spot on your cheek just as your eyes flick down again at the table. You keep shifting from foot to foot, as if trying to dodge the horrible words that I am telling you.

Your teacher has asked us parents and guardians to have this kind of conversation with you children over the weekend. She said she intends to talk to your class about 9/11 this week, but feels it is important for the discussion to begin at home.

I think she’s right to talk about it with you, and I think she’s right to invite parents and guardians to begin the conversation.

I also think it sucks.

It sucks that I must spotlight another way the world is messed up to you. It sucks that this stuff must be taught at all. It sucks that it happened. It sucks that we live in a world where it is possible for it to happen.

I have felt this way before. I remember, for instance, the day I had to inform you about slavery, and try to explain how people owned other people, or thought they did (and had the laws of the nation backing their belief). I saw the surprise and horror in your eyes, like you wanted me to be telling you a terrible joke and you were just suffering through until I got to the punchline. I wondered if by telling you about slavery I was inadvertently putting something into your heart and mind that hadn’t been there before: a sense of otherness from people in your class whose complexion was different than yours.

More than most second-graders, I think you understand the way this world can be randomly cruel. But it doesn’t make it any easier for me to reveal a new layer of that cruelty you have not seen or heard about yet.

I am at a loss for how to find any easy lessons about 9/11. Even more, I am at a loss on how to impart them to you, who are growing up in a world so shaped by it that you will never know anything else.

I suppose the best I can do is to tell you this.

One day near the end of her life, I was sitting in the hospital next to your mom, watching doctors and nurses come in and out of the room to check her readings or order new tests. Machines whirred and beeped. Someone else’s blood was being transfused into her body to help with her blood oxygen levels since her kidneys were failing. Her torso had been imaged and re-imaged and re-imaged again to see the progression of the cancer and attempt to determine the source of some internal bleeding.

I thought about how advanced and complex the machines performing all these observations and intrusions were. How years upon years of research had led to their development and improvement. How the technological advancements had allowed doctors to see inside her body less invasively, improving outcomes for many patients and making the process of being treated a little more humane. The medical bill I received a few weeks later—mercifully mostly covered by our health insurance—confirmed what I already suspected: that the machines were not just advanced, but also expensive to operate.

I thought about the doctors and nurses, who had gone through years of school and training to use these machines. I thought how they learned to deliver medicine in appropriate doses, with respect and compassion for the patients in their care. They called upon colleagues and specialists to try to diagnose the various ways that your mom’s body was conspiring against her. They helped her use the bathroom and cleaned her afterward. They made sure she was as comfortable as possible given the circumstances. They speculated about what could be causing the complications, and told us the plan they intended to follow.

As I thought about those things, I was struck by the contrast between your mom’s situation and the senseless acts of violence that appear daily in the news: how people can fight so hard and pour so many resources into prolonging one person’s life that is all-but-doomed, while other people can so thoughtlessly snuff out another life, or many other lives, whether caused by anger or jealousy or fear or zealotry.

How can these two things coexist in our world, imperfect as it is? How can some people have such compassion in their hearts while others hold only hatred?

“Do you have any questions, buddy?” I ask you. You say you don’t, and I can tell how badly you want to end this conversation.

That’s fine, I tell you. There will be plenty of time for questions later.

Lord knows I have a few.

Questions about the terrified people in the planes. Questions about heroes that prevented further tragedy, or who rushed into danger to help complete strangers. Questions about the confused people in the buildings, and the terrible choices they had to make. Questions about how I would feel if I was in any of their shoes.

Questions about what could lead people to plot and execute such a plan. Questions about religious zealotry and extremism. Questions about the hatred that drives people to kill.

Questions about American policy that played a role in fomenting extremism in parts of the world. Questions about the appropriateness of our country’s response to 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror. Questions about what our country lost and what it gained on that day.

Questions about whether something like it could happen again.

Questions about human suffering.

Questions about human courage.

Questions and questions and questions.

Someday, if you end up having some of these same questions, we’ll talk some more about all of it. And maybe, together, we can come up with a few answers.

One Comment on “What I Want You to Know About 9/11

  1. Oof. We had a similar convo with L&T this week about 9/11.

    Your post reminds me of an assignment my 10th grade English teacher gave us–at the beginning of the year, we had to write an essay answering the question “are human beings basically good or basically evil?” My thesis statement was along the lines of “not good, not evil, just stupid.” Then we spent the whole year reading books that showed some pretty dark sides of human nature– Maus and Night are two I remember. Then at the end of the year, we had to rewrite that essay– good or evil?– now incorporating all that we’d read about over the year. I think my teacher (who was something of a cynic) expected most of us to come down on the side of evil by that point. But in spite of all the horrors, I wasn’t ready to concede that human beings were essentially evil. The lines from my final essay that I remember are “Men put up the gates at Auschwitz; men tore them down,” and, the closing line, written in all caps, “I AM NOT EVIL.”

    Anyway, thanks, Caleb.


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