It’s a Wide World by Donalyn Miller
Tomorrow morning, our younger daughter, Sarah, starts her senior year of high school. After two decades of first days with our daughters, this marks our final first day of school as parents. Shopping for school supplies, Sarah joked that this was the last time she would need a cart full of folders. I suppose our lives will be full of last times this year.
She’s almost grown and gone.
It makes my breath catch.
We raise our children to leave us. It’s the natural order of things, but that doesn’t make it easier. I know Sarah is ready to go into the world, but we are not ready for the world to have her. Don and I promised to protect her. A foolish promise, really. No matter how much we try, we can’t protect our children from life’s miseries and setbacks. As our children grow into lives apart from us, this reality becomes harder to ignore.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was interning at an elementary school in Fort Worth, Texas. My mentor teacher, Teri, and I had just dropped our third graders off at PE. Another teacher came into our classroom and told us to turn on the TV because there was a plane crash in New York City. Teri’s husband flew for American Airlines and he was in the air that day.
Towers burning. People jumping out of windows. Dazed New Yorkers covered with ash and smoke. Frantic commentators struggling to communicate what was happening.
You saw it, too.
After watching the horror for 20 minutes, Teri and I turned off the TV and picked up our kids from PE. We couldn’t tell our students anything about the news. Our principal visited each classroom with a cart of water bottles and told us the children couldn’t drink from the water fountains. She had received notification that water supplies might be poisoned.
Teri couldn’t reach her husband on the phone.
We kept teaching like it was a normal day. Every adult was terrified, but we had to keep calm for the children. Teri and I were worried about our families, but we hoped our kids were safe at their schools, too.
Almost immediately, parents began streaming into the school to pick up their kids. Every few minutes, our classroom phone rang for another child’s early dismissal. By lunch time, half our class was gone. One little boy, Jared, asked each time one of his classmates left, “When do you think my mom is coming to get me?”
I chirped, “You’re safe with us until she gets here, Jared. Don’t worry!” but his question pricked my heart. Could I keep my word? Was anyone safe?
Teri’s husband came home. Many parents and grandparents and husbands and wives and daughters and sons didn’t.
Sarah was almost three on 9/11. In a few years, all of the children in our schools will have been born after the 9/11 attacks. While adults carry living memories of our experiences that horrific day, our children view 9/11 as an historical event. They accept the surveillance and suspicion pervading our world today. They have never known anything else.
The 9/11 attacks irreparably changed our global culture. Stories from victims’ families, survivors, first responders and witnesses deserve to be heard and passed on. How can we impart the gravity of 9/11 and its far-reaching impact to a generation that didn’t live through it? School children today represent the first generation after 9/11, but they won’t be the last. What do we want our children to understand about that day and its aftermath?
I know parents and educators who avoid discussing 9/11 with their children. They worry kids will be frightened. They fear damaging children’s innocence. We tell our children we will keep them safe, but 9/11 illustrates how illusory that promise is. Perhaps, we are reluctant to talk about 9/11 with young people because we still can’t make sense of it ourselves.
Bad things happen to good people. Cruelty exists. Sorrow and death touch us all. We don’t want our children to learn these hard lessons, but they inevitably will. When we avoid tough topics, we leave children defenseless. Our children must learn how to navigate the world on their own. A daunting responsibility for adults raising and teaching children, but we are responsible nonetheless.
We protect our children by shielding them from harm, but we protect our children by arming them against pain and adversity, too. How can we teach our children everything they need to know? How can we ensure children have what they need to face a dangerous, unforgiving world?
We don’t have to raise them alone. Faith, family, community—these resources help us raise our children. Books help us, too.
Our stories, both real and imagined, anchor us to all of human experience—stretching into the past and into the future. It takes a village to raise a child and the best village has a library in it. Reading provides children with what Kelly Gallagher calls, “authentic rehearsals” for life. Books give us one more support system for raising our kids to live in the world they will inherit and transform. We find models of hope and perseverance. We confront what is best and worst in ourselves. Books help teach us how to live.
Don and I are better parents because books helped us raise our daughters. We are grateful for the guidance. An endless resource we can use, share, and pass on.
The upcoming 15th anniversary of 9/11 provides another opportunity for us to teach our children about the suffering and triumphs of humanity.
Here are ten books for describing and discussing 9/11 with young people.
I Survived The Attacks of September 11, 2001 by Lauren Tarshis
Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin.
Nora Raleigh Baskin, author of Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story, has created a blog where educators can share their 9/11 stories.
Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes.
The Memory of Things: A Novel by Gae Polisner.
Shooting Kabul by N.H, Senzai.
The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón.
With Their Eyes edited by Annie Thoms.
America is Under Attack: September 11, 2001: The Day the Towers Fell by Don Brown.
14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy with Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah.
Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of John J. Harvey by Maira Kalman.
Please share your plans for discussing 9/11 with your children and any resources you recommend.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp) and the Best Practices Roots (#bproots) chat with Teri Lesesne. Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.