My ten year old had a history test today. We reviewed the material yesterday afternoon, but his most profound lesson in history came a few short hours later. I took both of my boys to Charleston to see the mobile 9/11 exhibit yesterday.
On the way, we cranked Ryan Adams’ New York, New York, and the music did that crazy thing to me where I am filled with joy and anguish all at once. A river of emotions left me shaky inside; I felt fearful , in anticipation of what we were going to see, reckless and grateful to be alive, sorrow for the memory of the loss…When we had played New York, New York through for a second time, I began to worry that the content of the exhibit might be too intense for my boys. At ages eight and ten, their hearts are still tender and easily bruised. Turning down the music, I tried to prepare them.
It’s difficult to know how much of a terrible truth is too much to tell our little ones, so I broached the subject rather cautiously. “Don’t be surprised,” I told them, “If I cry a little bit.” My youngest, whose sweet heart always wants others to be happy, wanted to know why. We discussed the massive loss of life sustained on that day, and the pain of the loved ones left behind. He was quiet after that.
When we arrived, I was pleased to see that the line was not too long, and so we were free to absorb the photographs and commentary with a reasonable amount of privacy. The city street ceased to be what it was the moment we stepped through the gate. Instead, it became a living thing, a vibrant, breathing testament of sorrow and grief, strength and determination. I was surprised at the maturity with which they handled it. They filed along in front of me with somber expressions, scrutinizing the faces in the pictures before them. I pointed out details: the beautiful building in the foreground in some of the shots, the shock on an individual’s face, the way two apparent strangers were holding onto one another. We watched the brief movie, in which a handful of people related their stories from that day. One man lost his wife. One his mother. Another survived when the portion of the building that he and 13 others were in did not collapse around them.
When it was over, little Jeffrey looked up at me from his viewing spot on the floor. “That was sad,” he said, very simply. “Yes,” I responded, “It was.”
We procured our sharpie pens and prepared to sign our names on the steel beam that would be part of the memorial in New York City. I watched my little one carefully pen his name, more deliberately than I have ever seen him do his writing exercises for school. I swallowed hard at the sight of his young face so intent on this task. Six years later, it still seems so senseless. I stepped back and took a picture of my boys in front of that beam full of names. It seemed to me that all of those names were holding each other up, supporting one another as the people of our country did following this terrible attack.
They wanted to do something, to help if at all possible. We donated a few dollars to the memorial fund. Their expressions told me that they understood, in some small way, that they were sharing in something sacred.
On the way home, the boys had questions. They needed to talk about what they saw. I kept my answers as simple as I could, trying to explain honestly without causing harm; trying to help them see that 9/11 is an important part of our history. But most of all, trying to help them understand that they are part of something bigger. Compassion, love, kindness…these are the bigger things.
Teddy can tell me the names of the men who served on the first cabinet of the United States government. I pray that he learned something else about history yesterday; that it is more than just events from the past. History has a face. It has many faces. It breathes and dies, it laughs and cries. We are part of history as much as we are part of the future. These ties cannot be separated. Just as my son left his mark on that steel beam, he will leave his mark on this world.
My son had a history test today. And he passed with flying colors.