On empathy and answers, 15 years later

On the morning of September 11, 2001, all the color had drained from Kim’s face when she flung open the office door. She came from the residence hall’s community center, where there was a TV that always seemed to be on, even when no one was watching. Out of breath, she told us what she had just seen on CNN. We all raced out the door behind her, Andy already dialing his cell to the main student affairs office.

9.11.16 cover of New York Daily News, via @richarddeitsch Twitter

9.11.16 cover of New York Daily News, via @richarddeitsch Twitter

I’d been in Baltimore about two weeks by that point, settling into the rhythm of my second real job. I was responsible for 350-odd college freshmen at an art school, and for overseeing a staff of diverse and quirky RAs who were still deciding if they trusted me. Boxes weren’t unpacked yet in my new home, one of the dorm rooms they called ‘apartments’ because the word suggested more independence for the price. Every day involved more learning what I didn’t know, staying up far too late learning the culture of art students, and showing up at the office early the next morning with scribbled lists of questions. To frame the time: my phone didn’t take pictures yet, you still had to plug a computer into a wall to connect to the web, news tickers were not yet part of daily television, and Facebook had not yet launched.

The newness had me already out of my comfort zone before I stood alongside my new boss and our office manager, watching the second plane hit the World Trade Center. On that morning, discomfort shifted to fear and anxiety, and anxiety shifted to denial. I remember thinking right away about the student who was working the dorm’s front desk downstairs. All she saw was her three bosses race past her, up the stairs, all of us looking panicked. I wanted to go down and relieve her so she could come watch — but really, I just didn’t want the responsibility of witnessing the morning as it happened. Someone else could tell me about the smoke, and the fire, and the other plane crashing into a city only an hour away. I didn’t have to see it. I didn’t want to carry it.

Of course, we all had to carry it. If you’re old enough to remember anything about the year, you remember exactly where you were and what you experienced as our whole country held its breath, releasing the air as a scream, or as tears, or — for nearly 3,000 people, not at all. You probably remember how you spent the rest of that day, too, as a new reality started to sink in. Many of us went into crisis mode, figuring out plans and contingency plans for outcomes we didn’t know or understand yet. Actually, I think our whole country went into crisis mode, and I’m not sure we ever left since.

Today, it’s been fifteen years since 9/11. Some of the students I teach weren’t born yet, and others were toddlers. They don’t remember the day, but they do remember the consequences of the day. They’ve seen their parents grieve, and they’ve heard their teachers reflect, and they’ve watched footage of the buildings collapsing. They’ve experienced how our country has changed, even if they weren’t part of the specific day when it all began. They know how to Google-search the reasons why, especially when they aren’t really sure how to ask questions of adults. This is why my students mention conspiracy theories when I ask them what they know.

It’s a strange time in the aftermath of a defining event. Teaching students about 9/11 yet is an evolving process, while some educators wonder if we are past the point of memorializing the day each year. Does it still matter to our students? Last year, a student journalist asked a school administrator why a memorial service that had previously marked the attacks was not scheduled. He described “a feeling from some teachers and administrators that this many years later, students don’t really have a personal connection to it the way they used to.” He mused that maybe memorials weren’t as valuable as they were for “the first ten or so years.”

The answer to whether 9/11 still matters to students is irrelevant if we use it to diminish our responsibility to teach that it does still matter, and why.

But other educators at all levels are claiming more responsibility. “I don’t believe September 11 will ever become a static event compared to one like Pearl Harbor because we’ve chosen to frame it as a distinctly hopeful moment in history, when countless ordinary people came together with tremendous compassion and selflessness to serve others,” Rashid Duroseau, a sixth-grade history teacher and civics coordinator at Democracy Prep Charter Middle School in Harlem, told The Atlantic. Duroseau uses readings and discussions of personal artifacts at the September 11 Memorial to spark empathy in his students for those who lost their lives, for families, and for those who helped.

The same article describes how busses of freshmen at George Washington University travel to community service in Washington DC after their freshman convocation, as a way to frame remembrance of those who served in 2001. “Afterwards, we have students reflect on the reason we do service for 9/11 and how this gets people from different backgrounds to work very closely together,” Amy Cohen, the school’s Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service executive director told The Atlantic.

Our President and other civic leaders are determined to keep the events of 9/11 alive by framing the goodness and unity of those who helped, calling for acts of selflessness and charity. “By devoting ourselves to each other and recognizing that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves just as heroic patriots did on September 11 we are paying tribute to their sacrifices,” President Obama wrote in his proclamation of September 11, 2016 as a National Day of Service and Remembrance. Websites like 9/11 Day and organizations like United We Serve work to provide structures for service work surrounding the day.

I teach students how to throw pots. The fact that they don’t have a personal connection to pottery when they walk into the studio is my motivation for teaching them to love the craft. I teach students how to write and critically assess journalism. That many of them get their news in TV and Twitter soundbites is what drives me to teach them about why ethical, diligent news is still so important. My main tool is empathy. Empathy is how we learn the ‘whys,’ the motivations of others, the cultural differences that help us sort out what matters and what doesn’t. Once I convince a student to care about artists and the studio, he will spend hours learning to work with clay. Once a meaningful news story hits a student in the heart or the gut, or once it sinks in how an irresponsible news story impacted someone’s life, he will commit to understanding the craft of journalism.

Let’s face it — on the surface, our students don’t have personal connections to much of anything that we teach. Part of our responsibility as educators is to drive them towards the content and experiences that we know are important to shaping students as responsible and empathetic citizens. Students rarely just drift there on their own; it takes a village. And in a world of constant distraction, when we remove the structures that guide our students to learn, or to experience empathy, the internet fills in the blanks with memes, gifs, celebrity, and pokemon — or systemic change that affects our citizenship.

Fifteen years later, I’m still not sure I want to carry the responsibility that the events of 9/11 landed on all of us. But whether or not I want the job has been irrelevant ever since. Over the next few hours, days, and weeks of 2001 in Baltimore, our jobs in student affairs became nonstop caretaker roles. In the immediate hours, many of our residents couldn’t contact family on jammed phone lines. Others wandered around in shock as the new reality set in. There were all sort of practical contingencies (“Where are the safe zones if we are under attack? How will we feed students if the power goes out? Will students be able to travel home?”) — and at the same time there were hundreds of tears needing shoulders to land on.

I’ve never learned so much about empathy in such a short period of time. I needed every bit of it as a student affairs professional, as a stew of raw emotions blurred into thin skins, grief, and anger over the weeks and months to come. And in my next career as a teacher, I’ve needed not only my own full reserve of empathy, but the resources and structure to be able to teach it to others.

Does 9/11 still matter to our students? The answer to that question is complicated. But it is also an irrelevant answer if we use it to diminish our responsibility to teach that it does still matter, and why.

In an incredibly thoughtful blog post last year at On Being, columnist and Duke professor Omad Safi frames these questions in a story about how his frame of reference for teaching a tough class about Islam shifted, after one of his students disclosed that her father had lost his life in the Towers:

How should we speak about complicated moral and political messes — which is all of them — with the awareness of the presence of human beings whose lives have been transformed for both better and worse in the room with us?
We live in an age of bluster.
We have presidential candidates being praised for “speaking their mind” instead of inquiring about what is on their mind and how much wisdom and compassion is in their heart.
How do we preserve sanity, compassion, humility, and empathy in this rather loud age?

I want these questions to be my own essential questions as a teacher and as a person. How do we preserve sanity, compassion, humility, and empathy in this rather loud age?

I know one answer for certain: We teach that it matters.

On the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, what are you doing to preserve the empathy we felt so intensely on that day, in all of the ways you teach and role model to others?

Originally published at Teaching Craft.