This Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This event, more than anything else that has happened in my life, marks the time when history became personal to me. Prior to 9/11, there were events such as the Challenger explosion and the Oklahoma City terrorist attack where I could remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I got the news. Nothing, however, impacted me as personally as the 9/11 attacks.
I remember my mom telling me about her watershed moment as a young adult – the assassination of John F. Kennedy. My dad was stationed in Korea with the Army, and she was a young married woman separated from her husband by thousands of miles. I always found her personal recollections interesting, and they were an added dimension to the facts I studied in history class. A reminder how events here affect Americans all around the world.
Now as a mother, I find my children studying the events of 9/11 in their history classes, wanting to know more about my own personal story. Every American has an important story to tell about that day. All of our personal grief turned into a collective grief for our country, the lives lost, and the survivors. For the life we lived before the events versus the life we lived afterwards. For the lost innocence of our children. For our vulnerability thrust into the spotlight.
I think one of the best ways to help our children understand the events is to tell them your own personal story. Even if you weren’t in New York or Washington, DC. Even if you didn’t know someone who lost their life that day. But especially if you do. We must never forget.
My Personal 9/11 Story
It’s interesting what you remember about days like 9/11/01. I remember where I ate the night before but not what I ate for lunch that day. I remember entering my office in the Cannon House Office Building, right beside the US Capitol, and finding everyone hovering around our 11 inch TV. I remember slathering cream cheese on my bagel and popping open a can of Coke – and finding these items still on my desk the following morning.
That day is a blur of panic, sheer terror, sadness, and gratefulness. Panic as the Capitol guards told us to stay in place after the second plane hit but then shouted for us to run once news about the Pentagon was confirmed. Sheer terror as we ran east towards a co-worker’s apartment, sonic booms sounding overhead as fighter jets scrambled. Sadness as we sat glued to the TV screen, watching the horrific scenes in New York City, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon. Deep sadness in the late evening as a co-worker drove me home on the highway beside the still-smoldering Pentagon. Gratefulness upon reaching my husband who spent hours getting home from his job near the White House and for the dozens of phone messages I received from friends near and far. Gratefulness for the heroic sacrifice of the passengers of Flight 93 who diverted their hijacked plane from hitting the Capitol where I would have spent my day.
My story is similar to thousands who were in New York City and Washington, DC on 9/11/01. I hesitated even sharing it here because it’s nothing compared to what others suffered on that day. Those who were in the buildings or on the planes. Families who lost loved ones in the most public and horrific way possible. I read their stories and weep for them.
To make sure we never forget, we need to keep telling our stories of that day. Every American was a different person on 9/12/01 than they were on 9/10/01. The historian in me believes that every person’s story is important in history. In writing my first novel, I’ve found historical gems in diaries and letters, not from important people but everyday citizens. It humanizes the events of the past. Our children can learn about 9/11 through our own personal stories. What can you share with your child about your experiences on that day?
This can be a difficult subject to discuss with children and thankfully, there are many resources to help.
- New York City:
- 9/11 Memorial and Museum: Located on the site where the Twin Towers stood, this museum is a must-see. I’ve been to the outdoor memorial but haven’t been to the museum yet. The outdoor fountains are especially appropriate for children to visit and are open all hours. Look around the plaza as there are many memorials to see, including the survivor tree. See this page to learn about the museum’s 20th anniversary events. The museum also provides helpful tips on talking with your children about terrorism.
- Washington, DC:
- National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial (currently closed due to COVID): This poignant memorial is located along the side of the Pentagon where the hijacked airliner crashed. You can watch a video tour of the memorial here.
- Smithsonian: The Smithsonian is the official repository for 9/11 artifacts and is encouraging the public to provide their stories for its official records. Find a way to submit your story here.
- Flight 93 National Memorial: This memorial near Shanksville, PA is where Flight 93 crashed. This is high on my list of places to visit to thank those brave passengers who saved the Capitol and possibly my life.
- Several history museums have a special 9/11 section, including the National Museum of the US Army (including an online exhibit about the event) and the National Museum of the Marine Corps. We even came across an exhibit at the San Diego Air and Space Museum. Check out your local museums as many are hosting special exhibits for the 20th anniversary.
- Other memorials: Many cities have their own 9/11 memorials. This article details some of these lesser known sites.
All links are Amazon affiliate links.
- 14 and up:
- The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 – a must-listen to get the 40+ member cast experience (for older teens)
- Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 (for older teens)
- Ground Zero
- The Red Bandanna (Young Readers Adaptation)
- We All Fall Down
- 10 and under:
- 6 and under:
I haven’t listened to many podcasts about 9/11 but I’m sure there are many out there. I did listen to Sacred Ground: A 9/11 Story by NPR’s Up First. It was excellent.
Here’s a great list of the 20th anniversary specials many TV stations are airing this week.
Here’s a good article by The Washington Post on how to talk about 9/11 with your children, including recommended books.
How are you commemorating this anniversary of 9/11 with your children? What’s your 9/11 story? Share in the comments below.
If you lost a loved one on that day or you yourself were injured, please know that we will never forget.