I posted this a year ago, but I’m re-posting because I was late with it last year and because, if I ever have anything significant to say about today, this is it…
Every year, I do a lesson in my creative writing classes where I have students plot events from their life on a timeline and then events from the world at large. They combine one of each to make a poem. It’s a good assignment and the poems I get are normally pretty solid.
My students are getting younger. Okay, not really, but I’m getting older. This year, I had students who were born in 1998. That is the year I graduated from high school. It is also three years before 9/11.
Most years, when I’ve done the exercise above, a lot of kids have chosen to write about September 11th. And I can’t blame them. It’s certainly the single most significant world event of my lifetime. But this year, there was a big drop off in mentions of September 11th. Why? Because half of my students (maybe more than half) don’t remember it. They were alive, but only barely. If they do remember it, it’s hazy. The emotions associated with it are more of confusion than tragedy and might even range into indifference. And I don’t have a problem with it.
When I was a kid, you heard all the time about the Kennedy assassination or Pearl Harbor. These were the days our parents and grandparents remembered. When it came up, you sat quietly and listened to them tell stories about where they were when… and you failed to grasp the gravity of the event.
I remember everything about that day. I could describe it in minutest detail. I won’t because it wouldn’t be much different from the recountings of everyone else in America who wasn’t directly affected.
I will mention Professor Milder and Paul Winner. Professor Milder was the single best teacher I have ever had. I took every class I could with him in college and he was the one who made me understand what all the stuff I’d been told as a kid meant. We didn’t really have class the first day we went back. Instead, we talked. Professor Milder told us that this would be our Kennedy assassination. This was the thing that would, in some ways, define our generation. And this was the thing that those who came after us would fail to understand. Something that was incomprehensible at the time.
Paul Winner was my fiction writing teacher. He’s the only teacher I’ve ever had who I still have occasional contact with. He was in his late 20s when he taught me and had no more context for what happened than we did. And it was Paul who made me understand what we all felt. He spoke about how comforting it was when David Letterman came back on television. And it was comforting because it meant life would go forward. Silly as it may seem, there was doubt about this among those of us who were young.
And none of my youngest students understand this. They have no grasp of what it meant or what it felt like. It is part of my personal history, but for them, it’s just a piece of history not much different from Pearl Harbor. It happened. It’s important. But they don’t know. And because they don’t know, we are already forgetting.
I hate seeing “Never Forget” plastered all over the place every year. I hate it because it is so often plastered on cars and billboards and everything that is utterly forgettable and disposable. I hate it because it is insulting. I am never going to forget, and I don’t need to be reminded. I hate it because many of my students have already forgotten in the sense that they never had a chance to remember. Pretending it should have some extra importance for them – that it should approach the significance it has for those of us who were witness to it – is absurd.
It won’t take long. Another fifteen or twenty years and that day will just be history. There will be people close to the age I am now who weren’t alive for it. Once a year, we’ll trot out survivors to talk about how terrible it was, but otherwise, the world will have moved on.
I don’t think this is a bad thing because I don’t think anything good can come from heaping the sorrows of past generations upon yourself. Each generation will have its own collective sorrows. My grandfather was in WWII, but I never really knew the impact of Pearl Harbor because I wasn’t there.
So let these kids forget. They will have their own tragedies. And if they don’t? If nothing that resonates in that horrible way happens for them? Well, I can’t imagine anything better.