Teaching the Unthinkable

9/11 is rolling around again. As happens every year, I will pause whatever I am doing at 8:46am and cry – just a bit. Less every year. I was one of the many journalists dispatched to New York that day. Witnessing history was why I got into journalism and I will never regret racing to Ground Zero.

Now, though, I am a professor. I’m supposed to teach what it’s like to be a journalist. How to write a lead sentence, how to shoot video on a camera or a cell phone, how to edit and publish on multiple platforms… you know the deal. But every year I struggle with how to teach horror. How to teach a terror attack. How to prepare these bright-eyed young journalists to tell the story in the midst of sheer chaos and fear.

Students entering college this fall were most likely born in 1999. They have no independent memory of that day, although they’ve heard about it all their lives. Even the older students don’t really remember much, parents and teachers shielded them from the horror unfolding on TV screens. I often begin class by telling them I’m going to give them a first person account of the day. To a person, they watch me. They watch me explain what I was doing, where I went and what I did. They hear my voice shake, they see my tears. They also see me take a deep breath and try to explain how to remain a journalist in those circumstances, how to find the voices to tell the stories, and how to try to find the truth.

Each year the questions they ask me vary, but again and again I hear, “Why was it so hard for people to call each other? Why didn’t people post their locations?” I explain about the lack of cell phone towers, and the fact that there was no social media to post anything on. And they are stunned. How the world has changed in their lifetimes.

In our world now, terror attacks are increasing. Orlando, Paris, Barcelona, Manchester…on and on. These students of mine may find themselves in the middle of one someday, as a journalist or as a person just living their life.

I don’t think I can ever really prepare them for that. I can only tell my story.


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