For millions of Americans, the events of 9/11 can be recalled in an instant, with personal memories of the chaotic day that called a nation to action. But for students in the Lake Havasu Unified School District, the infamous day now sits squarely in the history books, with no personal memories tied to the events that united a country and started years of war.
So how is an event that was lived through by teachers taught to students who were born in a post-9/11 world?
Brian Zemojtel teaches U.S. history at Lake Havasu High School, and his teaching career began just a couple of years before the tragic day.
“I remember that day like it was yesterday and it still brings back emotions,” he said. “When it happened, I was getting ready for work that day to go teach. It was very hard knowing what to do or say that day because we still had to work. Students and teachers that day, I remember, were just in shock. You couldn’t believe it.”
Following the event for the next few years, Zemojtel taught 9/11 on its anniversary. “It wasn’t, at that time, in our history books or curriculum. It was too soon,” he said.
Instead of reading from textbooks, they would discuss the day for the duration of class. “We would talk about how things have changed. We would just reminisce about that horrible event. We would talk about the sacrifices our first responders made that day and the sacrifices our armed forces were making then, he said. “Then, I would have them write an essay describing what they remember doing on that day and how they remember that event.”
He would also ask them to speak with a parent or family members to report what they remembered as well.
But things have changed. His students are still asked to interview parents and family members who remember — because that’s all they can do.
“Years ago, I used to do that with my students with regards to the Great Depression,” Zemojtel said. “But, as time has passed by, we can’t do that assignment anymore... Soon, there won’t be many who remember World War Two. One day, in the long-ahead future, teachers will not be able to ask their students to interview someone who remembers 9/11 or what the world was like before September 11, 2001.”
With every passing round of students that sat in his classroom, memories began to fade. “It was kind of sad,” Zemojtel said. “The students were actual historical primary sources. We were all there sharing our memories, and now that was going away. You become alone in the classroom with your own memories.”
For his students, it slowly became “just another ‘important’ event in history,” he said. This year, he’ll bring up the event in his class to see what everyone knows, but the event is taught more in depth later on in the school year, as a chronological part of the curriculum.
“Today, we learn what the known causes were. We learn about the terror attacks pre-9/11,” he said. “We learn about the event itself and what happened… then, we discuss effects.” But the effects don’t truly sink in for today’s students compared to those who lived it. Despite this, however, he strongly believes it’s integral to the U.S. history his students learn.
“9/11 is not just a ‘was’ but it is also an ‘is,’ meaning it is both a historical event and a current event,” Zemojtel said. “Today, our troops are still fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan… our brave men and women are still fighting al-Qaeda terrorists around the world… our police and Homeland Security are on constant watch to prevent another terror attack.”
Extra precautions are now taken when boarding a plane, entering a government building or attending a sports game. “It is still with us, and things may never go back to the way it was pre-9/11,” he said.
Lee White, fifth grade teacher at Jamaica Elementary School, said that he taught 9/11 to his class one year, but no longer does.
“They don’t really understand it,” White said. The event is much more complicated than a one-day attack, as it “stems back to the Gulf War,” he said.
“9/11 is no longer the front line battle we are used to, like World War II, Vietnam or Korea,” White said. “This is actually a war on terrorism and not necessarily a specific country. In the old days, we knew our enemies. Today, it could be your neighbor and you would never know it.”