THE MEMORY OF THINGS: On a Stark Anniversary, Connecting Students to their History through Story by Gae Polisner
It is eleven o’clock at night and I’m sitting on the bathroom floor pulling a nit comb through my older son’s conditioner-soaked hair. He has just started the first grade, and at six years old, has a thick mop of brown curls we somehow miraculously cut short just a few days before. I’ve been doing this for hours. If I’m to avoid the chemical shampoos, I need three clean passes with the comb.
A week ago, this activity –- along with the note from the nurse’s office warning us a few hours before –- would have sent me spiraling. A week ago, a headful of lice had been among the greatest of my not-worst fears.
Now, as I comb, my eyes dart worriedly to the skylight above us, to the black starless sky with the orange-glow moon, as they have so constantly over the past several nights and days. My heart pounds, and my mind turns yet again to the threat of attack, and to thoughts of death and war.
This is the week of September 11, 2001, in my Long Island home, less than fifty miles from New York City where I so recently lived and where, a few short days ago, the Twin Towers came tumbling brutally down.
I drag a tissue across the comb and dive in again, trying to focus, my brain whispering a mantra paired with a promise: “It’s okay. We’re safe. I’ll never sweat the small stuff again.”
And I mean it with all my heart, even if, years later, the promise will be hazier and harder to hold on to. A headful of lice is nothing. I’d give anything to do this, or any other mundane task, into the wee hours, wrapped in my naïve cocoon of trusting that we’d be okay.
At the moment, I don’t feel so sure. Lie: I feel terrified. Our world seems irretrievably shaken.
* * *
Five days ago, the book of my heart, THE MEMORY OF THINGS, was released into the world. It is a bit of a mystery, a coming-of-age story, a tale of friendship, hope, and first love. And, on the road to publication, initially none of that was seen beyond the fact that the story unfolds in New York City on the morning of 9/11.
Understandably, adults (especially adults in New York) still have a swift and strong visceral reaction to the tragedy. I had editors state simply that they couldn’t bear to read it. I had editors read and love it, but fear they wouldn’t stand a chance bringing it up to “Acquisitions,” a room where many of the decision-making adults whose job it is to market and promote a book, had lived in the city that day.
I understood the resistance and fear, but through it all, I remained steadfast in the story’s worth and value to its readers. I reminded my agent (and myself) that the teen audience I primarily wrote the book for wouldn’t have the same pained reaction that most adults still have. In fact, I had seen their reactions first-hand as I visited school after school, so I knew it would be just the opposite: Teens today were feeling a stark disconnection with their parents’ and teachers’ 9/11 history, when what they wanted to feel was connection.
In classroom after classroom, as I told students what I was working on next, I received the most enthusiastic, excited reaction I’d ever gotten regarding a work in progress of mine.
Students wanted to read stories set during 9/11. They were hungry to know what it felt like to live through it, and how we survived that day.
If THE MEMORY OF THINGS is about anything, it is about just that: how we process and survive during times of tragedy.
THE MEMORY OF THINGS opens the morning of September 11, 2001, as 17-year-old Kyle Donohue is fleeing home from school to safety across the Brooklyn Bridge. Nearly across, he encounters a girl covered in the smoke and ash of the towers, wearing a pair of costume wings. Not knowing what to do with her, he makes the split-second decision to bring her home with him, where he discovers the girl has no memory, and doesn’t know who she is.
As Kyle tries to care for the girl — and his paralyzed Uncle Matt – inside the quiet bubble of his home, it is this desire to help others that buoys him through the hours, leading him to cope with the larger tragedy outside. My book, then, might be the Mr. Rogers quote personified: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
If early reaction is a tell, the story may do just this: Allow readers who weren’t yet born that day – or are too young to remember – to come in and experience the tragedy from a safe distance, and see how an ordinary kid might have soldiered on. And to believe, in the face of the same in the future, they, too, might find a way to cope.
In the end, my hope is that THE MEMORY OF THINGS will do what any good book is destined to do: allow readers to feel connected.
As for that moment on that bathroom floor fifteen years ago, I do believe our world is forever different, our lives forever changed. Yet, there’s a smaller truth too, one that matters the most: I am still here writing, and you are still there reading. As life goes on, normalcy has returned. And, while our larger world may never feel as truly safe again, our small day-to-day worlds mostly are.
And, so, what I offer in the face of all this is merely proof through story, that we have the ability to process and survive. That, in the face of tragedy, we still carry the ability to laugh, and hope, and fall in love. And, that, through these truths, we can offer our readers respite in a largely unsafe world.
If you’d like further reading suggestions on 9/11 for readers of all ages, you might check out these blog posts (and the comments that are chock full of further suggestions):
It’s a Wide World, Donalyn Miller: https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2016/08/21/its-a-wide-world-by-donalyn-miller/
Two Writing Teachers, Remembrance Ideas: https://twowritingteachers.org/2016/08/24/remembrance-ideas-9-11/
Or you may reach out to educators and Nerdy Book Club members Paul W. Hankins (https://twitter.com/PaulWHankins) or Lesley Burnap (https://twitter.com/auntierez) who have compiled extensive classroom resources on the subject.
And if you are an educator who might find sharing your own 9/11 story in the classroom healing, you may share it here on friend Nora Raleigh Baskin’s blog, THEY WERE MY KIDS: http://www.norabaskin.com/blog/
Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook, A Round-Up of 9.11 Books: http://mrsknottsbooknook.blogspot.com/2016/09/a-roundup-of-911-books
The Nerdy Bookcast:
Wishing you all peace today,
Gae Polisner is the award-winning author of The Summer of Letting Go and The Pull of Gravity. A family law attorney and mediator by trade, but a writer by calling, she lives on Long Island with her husband, two sons, and a suspiciously-fictional-looking small dog she swore she’d never own. She is an avid swimmer, and when she’s not writing, she can be found in a pool, or better yet, in the open waters of the Long Island Sound where she hopes, one day, to sprout gills and become a mermaid. She recently sold her fourth book to the fabulous Vicki Lame at St. Martin’s Press.