Reflections: Living Through and Making Sense of Our Shared History

Reflections, a quilt by Martha Kotter, courtesy of Amy Weinstein senior Curator of Oral History and Vice President of Collections, 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

September 11, 2021

Seismic events that happen in our lifetimes remain with us forever, replaying in our minds and conjuring emotional responses even many years later. Twenty years ago on September 11, I was at home with my husband and two children—a kindergartner and a 5th grader at Head-Royce at the time. We were doing all of the typical morning things families do to get ready for school—packing lunches, making breakfast, hustling to get two working parents and two kids out the door—when my husband called me from another room and said, “Turn on the news but don’t let the kids watch.” Time froze as I watched with horror as the violence and trauma unfolded then at the World Trade Center and with flight 93. 

We had no idea, at that moment, how this event would shape our world over time. We had no idea who in our community had been affected. We had no idea, truly, how to begin to respond to the extent of the tragedy unfolding before us.  Families were panicked as they tried to locate loved ones from 3,000 miles away. Our community was stunned. But what we did know: as teachers and educators, we needed to show up to be with our students, to support our families, and to do what we could to calm the panic and fear.

It has been 20 years since that day. Even our oldest students now at HRS had not yet been born. As I look from a vantage point two decades out, I realize that what was immediate and a lived experience in my life, is seen as “history” to our students. Our job, as educators and parents, is to help our children understand the complexities of the past in order to change and productively shape their futures. How, at different grade levels, can we help our students make sense of the most difficult and tragic events in our world without losing hope in the potential of humankind? It may seem an impossible task in difficult times, and yet it is our highest priority and responsibility. 

Upper School Head, Ricky Lapidus, wrote an eloquent message to our high-school students last Friday and invited them to engage with these two poems: Billy Collins’ “The Names” and Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” Both poems, he explained, “speak in different ways to who and what was lost that sun-dappled morning.” Zagajewski’s poem ends with the lines, “Praise the mutilated world / and the gray feather a thrush lost, / and the gentle light that strays and vanishes / and returns.”

Families, may you continue to hold your children with care and gentleness in these fraught times. 

Know that we do so every day here at Head-Royce.

- Crystal