Imagine 9-11. You remember where you were, what you were doing. You remember being glued to the news for hours, maybe days, as the events unfolded, as the horror of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil sunk in slowly, bit by horrifying bit. You remember that you learned of the full scope of the attacks over several days, maybe months, because as a nation we were all working to wrap our minds around what happened.
Imagine that you were one year old when the attacks took place, that you don’t remember a thing about that day ten years ago.
Imagine that in the ensuing ten years, you’ve heard adults talk about 9-11. You’ve heard of the Twin Towers, you might even know they are gone. In your mind they are like storybook happenings, though you’ve been told that it is real life. Imagine, if you will, that you are a child with a conceptual learning disability, that your thinking is concrete. You have learned, from watching television with your parents and from reading instruction, the difference between fiction and non-fiction, you have developed ways to determine which is which, concrete ways that include applying rules you’ve been taught. Imagine, then, that talk about 9-11 is such an abstract for you that it floats outside of your experience, a piece of knowledge like a word in a foreign language – you can say it but the breadth and depth of it’s meaning escape you in ways of which you are not even aware.
Now imagine that you are in sixth grade. It is September 12, 2011. You are in social studies class. The hour is dedicated to the attacks of September 11, 2001. The teacher talks. You see pictures that you’ve never seen before. There is a film. You hear, all at once, what others have gathered and processed over that ten year period. You hear the outcome of the events at the same time as you see images of the events. You hear about or you see the Twin Towers fall. You learn that people died, thousands of people died. You may or may not hear about the two other planes, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Ten years’ information and understanding parsed down into second period.
Imagine that your learning differences include slow processing. It takes time for information to sift through your wiring and trickle into that place we call understanding. You close your eyes and the images that you’ve seen return on the screens of your eyelids. No matter how hard you rub at them, no matter how grumpy or angry you get, the images stay. Imagine that the next day at school, social studies returns to its regularly scheduled programming. Yet in your mind, those images remain – two towers crumpled to the ground. All those people. Imagine feeling so sad but not being able to put that sadness into words. Imagine.
Imagine holding that within you for 48 hours until, despite your wanting to push it away, it slips out. You’re in the car with your mom. You’re tired. “Something happened,” you say, “And I just want to forget.”
This is what I imagine my daughter’s experience might have been like over the past couple of days. By the time she talked to me about it last night, she was so anxious and afraid that she was nearly hyperventilating. I could see her gulping breaths of air and letting them out slowly, trying to self soothe. She didn’t want to go to sleep. She was appeased with sleeping in my bed. She allowed herself to be lulled into sleep curled up on our friend, her babysitter’s, lap, stroking the shaggy fur of the babysitter’s dog. Once to bed, she woke twice. I heard the thud from above as she jolted from her bed. Gripping her big white stuffed bear, she drifted off again with an arm across my pillow. Later in the night, the arm sought me out, clasping my hand.
This morning, she did not want to go to school. “I don’t feel well enough to go to school,” she said. “You need to go to school,” I told her. She got dressed, and then she sat between my knees and leaned back into me while I wrapped my arms around her.
I told her that she was right. The events of 9-11 were scary. I told her that I understood. We talked about pictures she has seen before, pictures in social studies from wars, how Civil War images looked old fashioned in black and white and how that made it removed from her now, put it in the past for her. And then I explained to her that the images she saw may have looked very much like today – modern, color photographic images – but that the events took place ten years ago, when she was a baby, when she was one. I told her that unlike war, the attacks of 9-11 were crimes committed by criminals. I explained to her that people wanted to force other people into seeing the world they way they saw it, and that they hoped that this big bad thing that they did would scare people into their way of thinking. I told her it is sad that people feel that is the way to accomplish things in the world because it does not work.
I also told her that rather than being scared into doing things differently because of the attacks that we had come together, as a country and as a people. That neighbors helped out neighbors, that people from all over the world came to help. I told her about how things had changed in the past ten years that had made things safer – that people are aware and report unusual goings on around them, that they watch out for one another and for their communities in different ways that have led to criminals who would like to do things like this being caught.
By the time we’d finished talking, and it was no more than five or ten minutes, she was breathing easier. Her anxiety had left her with little appetite for breakfast but she gave it her best effort. She wanted me to walk her to school today, and she kept a verbal reminder going of the time. “It’s ten minutes until I have to leave,” she said. “I have five minutes. You are going to walk me to school, right?”
As she wandered through the living room with her shoes, her back turned from me, she mumbled. I didn’t hear what she said, but I asked. She looked up, “Thank you for helping me feel better, mom.”