9/13/01: High school discussions help sort out feelings
This story originally appeared on Sept. 13, 2001
As the shock of Tuesday's East Coast attacks began to settle, the questions and discussions arose at local high schools.
For teachers, the events were a classic moment to talk politics, history and morals. Students used the discussions during almost every class and the constant conversation in the halls as a way to sort through their own feelings and understanding.
"It's one of the most appropriate teaching moments ever," said Rev. Antonio Dittmer, chaplain and theology teacher at the High School of St. Thomas More in Champaign.
At the Catholic school, he also had the chance to bring a spiritual element throughout the day. Dittmer chose a passage from the book of Lamentations to read with a prayer because the book was written by Jews in exile while their enemy seemed to triumph.
"We prayed a lot," said sophomore Christian Bunyan. "It helps us work together, and make sense of the whole tragedy."
Meanwhile, seniors at University High School analyzed how the event was being constructed by media and politicians. Students in Bill Sutton's U.S. history seminar groaned as they saw the much-used media slogan "Attack on America" as part of the discussion title.
To Leila Agha the phrase characterized the event "as an act of war versus an act of terrorism," which could unite the American people behind the government. The class talked extensively about the rhetoric of politicians, who they thought seemed to be preparing the people for the worst with rallying cries of protecting freedom.
"They use freedom to sell war in every war we've fought," said Molly Lewis.
Discussion followed national patterns, shifting to who did this. Daniel Grinols expressed the frustration of many Americans at the lack of answers.
"This is more disgusting than Pearl Harbor," he said. "We want to get someone and we don't know who."
Students speculated about why New York was chosen and what the capitalist symbolism of the World Trade Center towers meant to the attackers.
"They could have bombed the Super Bowl and killed more people," Patrick Morales-Doyle said. "They don't like corporations and they don't like American leaders, not Americans as people."
They also wondered about the repercussions on Arab-Americans, with media showing images of Palestinians rejoicing at the attacks.
Dittmer also worried about a xenophobic sentiment and has cautioned students against making broad judgments.
"Islam is sacred and we admire it," he said.
Retaliation also came up at St. Thomas More in a religious context. Dittmer said the event worked perfectly into his moral theology class.
"We've talked about what we believe and what we've heard," sophomore Nick Timpone said. "It gives the Catholic view."
Sutton said the last national event he remembers using in the classroom to this extent was the shooting at Columbine in 1999. He said this one could continue if it does escalate to the first war in the teen-agers' lives.
"I haven't brought it up yet because it's too early to tell," he said.