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How to Deal with Emotional Response to September 11

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Every September 11, I read a news story that connects me to the grief of a stranger. Today, it was one about Alissa Torres, a woman widowed on 9/11 who still clings tightly to her dream that there was, somehow, beauty in her husband's death.

Credit: Illustration from Zlateh the Goat & Other Stories. © Maurice Sendak. All rights reserved.

I read Alissa's story this morning and cried. And now, as I do each year, I'm trying to figure out how to assimilate that personal history into my life -- how to keep it close enough that I never lose a gut sense of its importance, even as I turn my attention to the present (which includes the broader social, political, and military mess those attacks left behind).

It's hard enough, as an adult, to grapple with the quantity of pain that day produced and the depth of depravity that caused it. It's tricky, also, to trace how those terrible events influence us, personally and politically, today -- and how they will shape our society for generations to come. As a teacher with 20 or 30 kids in your care, how do you help your students make sense of all this, too? Particularly when some of them weren't even born when the attacks occurred.

In one of our earliest Edutopia magazine articles, writer Carol Pogash described how children cope when their teacher is called to serve in war. "I feel like a chunk of my life is gone," wrote fifth-grader Cody. David Spiegel, then associate chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, responded to Cody's honesty thus: "It shows me that kids are smarter than adults. They don't carry on as if life is normal when it isn't."

Earlier this week, at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum, I went to the opening of an exhibit on the children's stories and illustrations of Maurice Sendak, and I have to wonder whether the timing was only accidental. Sendak's work, beloved for decades by kids and parents (and a favorite in my home growing up), uses childlike imagination to confront real anxieties and fears -- feelings he experienced as a child in New York City as his Polish relatives were killed, one and then another and then another, by Hitler.

Though the monsters in his classic book Where the Wild Things Are turn out to be easily tamed, that's not true of all his beasts, some of whom are truly monstrous. In the exhibit, Sendak describes them as "demonic people, wild things, something in disorder that races through the world, and that we have to live with." Sound familiar?

The museum's curators explain that Sendak "finds important truths in the logic children use to cope with reality. . . . Because his villains and monsters represent forces of 'disorder,' stories about challenging, overcoming, and befriending them are a form of resolution for Sendak."

So maybe, through helping children understand this horror in our recent history, we can also help find healing and resolution for ourselves.

You may find some ideas and insights in two more past Edutopia articles: one on New York City teens turning their 9/11 grief into action, and one on the nature of resilience. Tell us what you think: What do you remember about that chilling day? How do you help your students understand it? And how do your students help you?

-- Grace Rubenstein, senior producer

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Meredith P.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a very insightful piece and highlights aspects of 9/11 and addressing it with my students. As a high school Social Studies in the local suburbs of NYC, when it came to 9/11 this year I had an internal battle as to is it appropriate for me to discuss the event and to what extent. I was in high school myself when the tragedy occurred and had family close to the towers. When it came to my teachers teaching about the event they never focused on how we felt or what was going on in our heads at the time. Now 8 years later the same dilemma is there of how to address the students in our classroom. After reading about how students "are smarter than adults. They don't carry on as if life is normal when it isn't." It should make it ok to discuss such a tragic event and they actually would welcome it if someone is there to listen. Now this has helped me to make sure that I cover and discuss 9/11 next year in all of one my classes.

Geoff Brown's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a great idea! I am wondering where you draw your articles from? Is there a good resource you could share?

Geoff Brown's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When you say that you read an article each September 11, do you mean personally or to a class of students?

Adrianne Bearer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach students K-5th Emotionally Disturbed so this article really touched me because I see these aspects through my own students. They use imagery, or drawings to rid their demons within. One year I had a student who loved Art. She especially liked to paint. She told me one day she had started art lessons and it was an amazing release for her. She asked if she could bring in her painting when it was completed to share with the class. I told her that was fine. The following week she had brought in her painting and I was amazed that she was capable of doing such great work. It was titled "My Daemons Within" and the painting could not have showed this any clearer. Later she explained to me privately that she had never been able to tell anyone these secrets she had been carrying around, and felt so amazing that she was finally able to release these demons through her painting.

Lauren Firmin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Lauren Firmin and I am from East Lyme, Ct. I am attending Walden University, which is an online university. Part of our assignment for this week was to participate in a blog. This blog caught my eye because where I live is about two hours (driving) away from New York City.
I was a sophmore in high school in 2001 and it was a very emotional day. Many of the students and faculty had family that worked at the World Trade Center or in the city because we live so close to that area. Many people take the train into the city to work. So when this day happened everyone was freaking out not knowing what to do. We could not get a hold of anyone and the news seemed like everything they were finding out was taking so long to be told.
I was fifteen years old and I had a hard time dealing with it. That day was horrible to watch some of my classmates who did not know if a family member of there's was dead or alive. I cannot even imagine being a young child and have to comprehend this. At my school we were all called to the auditorium and the faculty talked to us about what was going on. Students were allowed to call home to get dismissed if they were connected to the tragedy. Then we got dismissed back to our homerooms because every classroom had a TV because that is what the clock was on. The teachers let us tune into the news. We were not being censored from anything. However, when it comes to younger grades they do need to know what happened. Although the extent of what they are told should be monitored. The vocabulary should be changed. You do not want to make children be afraid to leave the house.

Lauren Firmin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I already posted one post and cannot figure out where it went so this is just a test before I try and rewrite it since I did not have it saved.

Grace Rubenstein's picture
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia

Hi Meredith. I'm really glad this post was meaningful to you. Like you, I like the idea that we adults, who try to always act "strong," can learn something from kids. Sometimes strength actually comes from being willing to show our sadness, confusion and fear. I hope you and your students had some good discussions this year.


PS -- If you like Maurice Sendak, I found a lot of wonderful insights into how children see the world in Sendak's new movie, "Where the Wild Things Are."

Grace Rubenstein's picture
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia

Hi Geoff. I mean that I personally read a story on 9/11 -- I don't have a class of kids to share with. Reading a story on 9/11 isn't even a rule that I have for myself, I just find that it happens naturally, without me even trying. Something catches my eye, and then I'm drawn in to a stranger's struggle for healing. This year, the story that really moved me happened to be from Salon.com, here: http://www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2009/09/11/911_widow/


Grace Rubenstein's picture
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia

Adrianne, this is a great story. Thanks for sharing it. Like I just mentioned to Meredith, I thought Maurice Sendak again provided some great insight into children's feelings and perceptions in his new movie. Another example of how we can express some of our deepest hopes and fears through art.


malcolm bellamy's picture
malcolm bellamy
Teaching and Learning Consultant in Southend, Essex, U.K.

I found this article really thought-provoking. There are two aspects that I want to comment upon.
Firstly 9/11 is a historical event. It is a challenge to all teachers to get children to look into the realities as against the myths or opinions that surround any event and certainly one as horrible and disastrous as this one. I have recently written a blog post which questions how we use technology to support the research our children do into events such as 9/11.
I understand that,as recent history, the event is still fresh (and still painful) to people who witnessed it or had relatives and loved ones who died. In my post "Two Searches on 9/11" http://wp.me/pKfOP-od I discuss two search engines Google and Sweetsearch and how these two search engines produce very different results from a search on "9/11".
I point out in the post that Sweetsearch is verified and that they come out with an excellent link to the Library of Congress Site entry about 9/11: The LOC Wise.Gov Remembering 9/11 http://www.loc.gov/wiseguide/oct07/911.html. This contrasts with the Google results which started with two unverified Wikipedia entries which students are more likely to access.
So, from a historical point of view I feel that teachers need to think of what sources of information their students have access to.
My second point is in relation to the power of art to express emotion that was discussed by some of the comments to the Blog. I feel that this only underlines the significance of art within our schools and I would widen this to all arts. Perhaps the most powerful way that we as humans express our feelings is through our art and this only goes to show how important the arts are to us and why we must fight to keep them alive in our schools so that, when children explore events such as 9/11 they have a means to explore their emotions as well as develop their opinions about what happened that day and what they feel about it.

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