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9/11 as a Lesson, Not a Memory
Eight years later, the Sept. 11 attacks are pages in the history books to a generation that's too young to recall them.

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009

VINCENNES, Ind. The students filed into their social studies class just after lunch and slumped into desks where they had learned about the Civil War, Lewis and Clark, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. On this day, teacher Michael Hutchison said, the class would feature "another of those huge moments in our history." He reminded the high school juniors and seniors that he would be grading their notes. Then he dimmed the lights and played a video on the classroom TV.

Some students set backpacks on their desks to use as pillows, and others pulled the hoods of their sweat shirts low over their eyes. "Nap time," one of them said. Meanwhile, on the screen at the front of the room, a skyscraper burned. A woman screamed. A tower crumbled. A mother sobbed as she recalled her son's final words.

"There was a fire," one student wrote in his notes.

"People died and went missing," scribbled another.

"It was an example of 'terrorism,' " wrote a third.

Eight years later, this is an example of what Sept. 11, 2001, has become for a generation that's too young to remember much, if anything, about that day: It is an educational DVD, a 167-page textbook, a black binder of class handouts titled "A National Interdisciplinary Curriculum." In Room C215 at Lincoln High School, images of the collapsing Manhattan skyline are now a classroom "warm-up exercise." "Militant," "imploding" and "rubble" are boldfaced vocabulary words for students to memorize. Homework assignments and essay questions ensure that Sept. 11 will indeed be remembered by millions of schoolchildren, if with a new sense of detachment.

From the personal to the preserved -- this is the uncomfortable transition that time requires of all great tragedies. Anthony Gardner, whose brother died on the 83rd floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower, conceived of a Sept. 11 curriculum as a tribute to the victims. He partnered with two professors in Manhattan, who partnered with an education company in San Francisco, which partnered with a cadre of researchers and copy editors, who sent the final product to a handful of test schools nationwide last week.

One copy was mailed to Hutchison, 53, a longtime history teacher in Vincennes who has never visited New York City.

A former Indiana Teacher of the Year, Hutchison had been chosen to help roll out the curriculum because of his reputation for bringing multimedia history lessons to a school edged by cornfields near the Illinois border. On Wednesday, he stared out at 22 students who have lived about half of their lives since the 2001 attacks. What they remember of that day is now scattered snapshots. One remembered his third-grade teacher saying that a plane had crashed. One remembered an administrator locking the front door to the elementary school. Parents hurried into town to stock up on gas. Neighbors hung American flags. A brother talked about being drafted to war.

"You might have been too young to realize it," Hutchison said, "but I knew that we were seeing history made as I was watching on TV."

He distributed a handout that had come with the curriculum, and the students counted the pages in each packet -- "Seven, eight, nine! Seriously?" -- and let out a collective groan. The first two pages contained flight-path diagrams for the four planes that crashed on Sept. 11, followed by a 30-year history of U.S. relations with Afghanistan. Hutchison asked the students to form groups of four and create their own Sept. 11 timelines.

"This is going to take us forever," complained a boy in the back.

"Just try to focus until the bell rings," Hutchison said.

Over the next several weeks, if Hutchison continued to follow the curriculum, his students would eventually build their own Sept. 11 memorials, create maps of terrorist activity and debate the cleanup of Ground Zero as members of a fictitious town council. But at the end of their first day studying the attacks, Hutchison assigned a more basic task for homework: to interview somebody older about Sept. 11 and write an article based on their recollections.

"I'm going to select the two best, and those students will receive some major extra credit," Hutchison said. "So take this seriously, because it could be huge for your grade."

In the second row, a senior named JaLeah Hedrick looked up from her notes.

"Wait," she said. "Extra credit?"

"Yes," Hutchison said. "Interview a few people. It can be uncles, parents, grandparents -- anybody you want. Then write down whatever they can remember."

* * *

Anthony Gardner, who has never been to Vincennes, needed to remember everything. Long before he created the curriculum destined for Hutchison's classroom, Gardner, 33, taught himself to retain every detail of the terrorist attacks that changed his life.

On Sept. 11, 2001, he was a recent college graduate listening to Howard Stern's radio show while walking to work in New York. Stern interrupted one of his gags to announce that the World Trade Center had been attacked. Gardner immediately thought of his brother, Harvey, who worked on the 83rd floor of the North Tower. He called Harvey's cellphone but received a busy signal. He dialed again, and again, but never got through.

Gardner walked seven miles through Manhattan and took a ferry home to New Jersey. He searched for pictures of his brother and hung one in every room of the house. He found a video recorded at his wedding four months earlier and watched footage of Harvey laughing so hard that it jiggled the boutonniere pinned to his chest. "I had this unbelievable urge to see him," Gardner said.

Weeks passed, then months, then years, and still Harvey's body was never recovered. Craving a tangible connection to his brother, Gardner collected rocks from the rubble of the World Trade Center and filled a water bottle with wet soil from Ground Zero. He printed transcripts of news conferences, saved newspaper articles and spent six years working as the director of a nonprofit organization representing Sept. 11 victims.

"My family told me that it was unhealthy and obsessive," Gardner said. "Some things about 9/11 are still more clear in my mind than whatever happened this morning."

There was the moment a few months before the attacks, when the two brothers met for a quick lunch near the World Trade Center and idled at the base of the North Tower. Harvey mentioned the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. "Look at this thing," he said, gazing up the shimmering face of the tower. "They'll never take these buildings down."

Or the moment a few days after the attacks, when Gardner sat at his computer and created a missing-person flier. Name: Harvey J. Gardner III. Age: 35. Hair color: black. At the bottom of the sheet, under a photograph, he typed a physical description -- "Hairline receding" -- and then imagined how furious Harvey would be if he ever read it.

Or the moment later that first week, hope fading now, when Gardner stopped by his brother's house and sifted through toiletries, collecting a razorblade and a toothbrush to provide rescue workers a sample of Harvey's DNA.

Eight years? Could it really be that long? In that time, Gardner began a marriage, struggled to have children, celebrated the birth of a first baby, then a second, then a third. He changed careers three times and returned to school for two new degrees. And yet still he suffered from nightmares and wondered if he had post-traumatic stress disorder.

A few years ago, Gardner's oldest daughter asked him about Sept. 11, and he realized how vague the event must have seemed to her. She needed to remember, he decided. Everyone needed to remember. He helped form the Sept. 11 Education Trust, which conducted 100 hours of video interviews with survivors, firefighters, politicians and relatives of the victims. The videos formed the backbone for a curriculum intended to "remind everyone that 9/11 was a collective experience, affecting everyone, everywhere," Gardner said.

With the help of history professors at the Taft Institute for Government at Queens College, Gardner developed a seven-lesson curriculum intended for sixth through 12th grades. He spoke at a news conference in New York on Tuesday to mark the release of the curriculum, recalling eight anniversaries of the attacks. First it was mourned, then memorialized, then made into history for future generations and shipped to a high school in Indiana.

* * *

JaLeah Hedrick, 18, had never learned about Sept. 11 in school until she entered Hutchison's class this week, but consequences of that day surrounded her as she began her pursuit of extra credit. For Hedrick, Sept. 11 was the pledge of allegiance that Vincennes area schools had begun playing over loudspeakers every morning since late 2001. It was the "Threat Level Orange" that she heard each time she visited the Indianapolis airport. It was the way her grandfather, a World War II veteran, grimaced when he spoke of "those Muslims." It was the USA T-shirt her dad wore when he picked her up from school in an aging Pontiac with a red-white-and-blue license plate inscribed with the phrase "In God We Trust."

And now, it was homework -- due to Hutchison by 1 p.m. Friday.

Hedrick wanted to interview her grandfather Ed Hedrick, because he is a veteran and, she said, "an American hero." Other classmates were planning to interview fathers serving in Iraq or distant relatives who had worked at the Pentagon, but Ed Hedrick, 83, was the only person his granddaughter knew whose recollections of Sept. 11 might have the gravitas worthy of extra credit.

She rode a mile across town and sat across from her grandfather on his front porch. She pulled a blue notebook and a pink pen from her backpack and then looked at a class handout that provided a list of possible interview questions. "I have to ask you some of these for homework," she told her grandfather, her eyes still fixed on the sheet. "Where were you when you first heard about the attack?"

"I was sitting in that red chair over there in the living room," he said.

She nodded and then read the next question. "Did you continue to listen to the radio or watch TV?"

"Yes," her grandfather said. "I barely moved all week. I couldn't stop watching."

"How did it affect you?" she asked.

"Severe anger, for days," he said.

"What action did you want the government to take?" she asked.

"Well, I guess I wanted them to load up three or four of those H-bombs and send them over there. That's how I felt at the time."

"How has it affected your daily life since?"

"Not much. I don't think about it. They teach you not to think about ugly things when you fight in a war."

Hedrick had a full page of pink notes now, enough for a good start on the assignment. She thanked her grandfather and patted him on the knee. He stood up with her, a distant look in his eyes. "I was born into a war, I fought in a war, and now here's another war," he said. "You might not know it to look at me now, but when I was 18 they made me walk 25 miles with 70 pounds on my back."

"I know, Grandpa," Hedrick said. "I know."

He looked ready to tell her more, but his granddaughter was already heading into the house, the door swinging behind her. She had heard this story before. She remembered it. It was history. So she walked off the porch, carrying the class handouts on Sept. 11, and returned home to finish her assignment.

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