Two weeks ago, District 91 students in all grade levels participated in a virtual assembly to commemorate what happened in this country on Sept. 11, 2001.
Eric Beltran, assistant principal of Forest Park Middle School, closed the program by playing taps as 9/11 scenes were projected on hundreds of student computers in each individual classroom. He said teachers told him that student reactions were very powerful with some students close to tears.
Nurys Uceta-Ramos, D91’s family and community engagement manager, planned the assembly which lasted 25 minutes, with a goal of reaching students’ hearts as well as their heads.
In an interview with 10 eighth graders, students revealed that they were familiar with the basic facts of that day. For example, Fiona Lackage knew that the Twin Towers were hit and that the terrorist group responsible was Al-Qaeda. Jaiden Smith added that the west wing of the Pentagon was also hit and that one of the four hijacked planes did not make it to the intended target. Johnathan Hayes knew that the terrorists involved were Muslim.
But facts were not the main objective guiding Uceta-Ramos when she designed the program. “We wanted to have an event,” she said, “that in an age-appropriate way honored the first responders who served and especially those who died on that day 20 years ago.”
“Our superintendent, Elizabeth Alvarez,” she said, “wanted to commemorate the day and for our students to know why 9/11 is something people talk about, why it’s a patriots’ day.”
The assembly included stories by Alvarez, police officers, and a school board member. There were also clips of the middle school band playing America, aka My Country Tis of Thee, and a selection by the middle school choir.
“Test scores are important,” said Uceta-Ramos, “and we want to make sure that our students are performing at their adequate levels, but we also want to make sure that we are attending to their social and emotional needs as well. We have to educate the whole child. It’s not just what they can do on a test but also how they relate to other people.”
That students are getting the message was evident in a comment by Kelvin Davis who said, “I don’t think it’s good that people make jokes about 9/11.”
Mariah McCullar added, “I think listening to people is important, listening to their stories about what happened, and having empathy.”
Fiona Lackage added, “I think that even though our generation was not born when 9/11 happened it still impacted us a lot. We have security in airports now. I saw videos. It was really sad. People jumping out of buildings.”
Regarding how his generation has been affected by 9/11, Jaiden Smith said the middle school does do terrorist drills. When the alarm sounds, he said, we make sure the windows are shut and the door is locked. Then we sit in a corner so people cannot see through the door window that we are inside.
When asked if they knew any Muslims, every student on the Zoom chat raised their hand, but when asked if they could picture any of them crashing a plane into their middle school all of the eighth graders said no.
Uceta-Ramos said that is what the teachers are trying to get across to their students. “Kelvin’s comment about making jokes about 9/11 is evidence that we are teaching students to not make assumptions about people but instead take care of each other in the community.”
Mariah McCullar acknowledged that there is only so much that one person can do but added that everyone should do that little bit. “I think it’s important to know that a lot of issues are happening and even doing a little part as an individual will make a difference if we all do it together. It’s important to be kind to everybody, a stranger or your best friend.”
Beltran said, “One of the positives that came out of this was 9/12. On 9/12 we came together. Divisions were gone. We came together as one. We did it once before and we can do it again.”