The first time Mike Reynolds taught his class on literature and national trauma, everyone had a Sept. 11 story.
It was 2008, and most of his students were middle schoolers on that bright September morning when planes started crashing into buildings, one after another after another. His students remembered what we all remember.
The towers falling. Smoke billowing out of the Pentagon. A charred crater in a Pennsylvania field. New York covered in ash. America shrouded in flags.
"Many of them ranked it as the most significant historical event of their lifetime," said Reynolds, a professor of English at Hamline University who teaches a course on Narratives of National Trauma, a class that studies stories about wars, disasters and assassinations that scarred generations.
A decade ago, his students "all felt personally traumatized" by the attacks, Reynolds said. "The collective national engagement with it, days weeks and months afterward; it felt like you had that trauma in your own life, even here in Minnesota, far, far away."
Everyone had a 9/11 story. Everyone remembered the eerie days when all the planes were grounded and there wasn't a single contrail in the sky. The long nights spent curled up on the couch, watching the footage over and over again, because it was the only thing airing on any channel.
Most college students today were toddlers on Sept. 11, 2001. They can barely picture a world where most of us got news about the attack from our televisions and not our phones.
Their stories start in the world we made for them afterward.
All they'll know about that day is what we teach them.
At Justice Page Middle School this week, students in Doug Werner's eighth-grade Global Studies class were worried about news reports that the president had canceled peace talks with the Taliban. If these talks don't happen, students wondered, will we go to war with Afghanistan?
"I had to use that as a teachable moment to say we have been at war with Afghanistan," Werner said. "We've been at war since before you were born."
That's how the topic of Sept. 11 usually comes up in this class — not as a chapter in a textbook but as the history behind the current events.
Werner was in college on Sept. 11, and when he first started teaching, his students had Sept. 11 stories of their own. Now it's history, just like Vietnam was history to students a generation earlier, or World War II was history to the generation before that.
"It's a different type of teaching, when you don't have that shared experience," he said. "It's a different type of conversation when you're explaining your feeling to someone else, versus them being able to share."
Master Sgt. Aaron Meyers has shared his 9/11 story hundreds of times with thousands of high schoolers: "Rebuilding Iraq," the story of his deployment and his unit's effort to help a shattered country rebuild.
Meyers was 24 years old and a brand-new recruiter for the Minnesota Army National Guard when he found himself driving to the Cities to pick up two young recruits who were scheduled to enlist on Sept. 11, 2001.
Before they could take the oath, the alarm went out and the federal building at Fort Snelling evacuated.
No one knew how many planes were still in the air with hijackers aboard. No one knew which building could be the next target. When Meyers stopped for gas, complete strangers spotted his uniform and came over to give him a hug.
"I remember, one of [the recruits] looked at me and said, 'What do we do now?' " he said. "I honestly did not know what to say, other than, 'If this is something you still want to pursue, this is the real deal. This is why we wear the uniform.' "
When the federal building reopened a few days later, both recruits returned to enlist.
Years passed, a new tower went up in Freedom Plaza and the wars went on and on. Meyers, now the operations non-commissioned officer-in-charge of the Guard's recruiting and retention battalion, started to realize that his story wasn't landing with high schoolers the way it used to.
"I noticed about five years ago, when I started talking to people about Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, they started giving me crazy looks," he said.
"They didn't know who they were."
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