Teaching & Remembering

Friday, September 9.

I scrolled through my cache of YouTube speeches, looking for one to share with my students. Each Friday in Public Speaking class, we watch a speech together, then spend time afterwards critiquing and learning from the style and–to some extent–discussing the message. This was only the second Friday, though, so I had little precedent and no real algorithm for deciding which speech to watch. There were historical addresses by presidents and reformers, the commencement advice of celebrities great and small, and half a dozen TED talks on as many topics.

Remembering the date, and the power of Presidential addresses in times of tragedy, I took my search in a new direction. I started typing “George W Bush” into the search bar when Google filled in the rest: “George W Bush Sept 20 2001 Speech.”

I didn’t remember the speech right away, the President’s address to Congress just over a week after the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. I didn’t remember it, but I know I watched it, because that’s what we did that week. We watched. As I read the transcript, dug up from a dusty corner of the Internet, I began to remember.

This was the speech that began the War on Terror, the speech in which our last President reminded a grieving nation that the acts of religious extremists don’t represent the faith as a whole. The speech in which he assured us that we were united, that we shouldn’t be afraid. I remembered that we were united, but we were afraid anyway. Every time a plane flew overhead, those first weeks, we looked up, even in Seattle.

I poked around the Internet, looking for the whole speech, but could find only the most intimidating parts excerpted to personal YouTube channels. I considered showing those parts to my multinational speech class, asking them to parse out the rhetoric and tone of those strong words for anxious days. But my students, though astute citizens of the world, are also sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. I do the math quickly, realizing that I was their age and they were toddlers in 2001, too young to understand that their world had changed in an instant. They’ll need memories to understand this speech. In strength they’ll hear vengeance, not reassurance.

“They keep getting younger,” a fellow teacher said to me last week, as we’d laughed over how very young even our seniors seem this year. “Not me,” she continued. “Them.”

Like my colleague I’m not getting older, of course, but events get pushed back and back, until they disappear from view, like the view of the dark-green shoreline from the ferry deck. My first students, only a few years younger than I, begged for time every year to remember, just a few minutes to retell where they were when the Twin Towers fell. Some suggested moments of silence, too, and I always obliged. Remembering is important.

Now I’m realizing that memories like these divide generations as surely as technology or presidents or any other marker that sociologists devise. Do you remember that day? Or have you just learned about it? In just a few years my high schoolers will have lived all their lives in a “post” world, and that maybe someday their commemoration will be to simply ask me “You remember? What was it like, then?”

We watched a different speech, just as relevant, called The Danger of the Single Story. In it, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie implores the West to treat her country and continent with nuance, to learn the rich tapestry of stories that make up her world, instead of the single narrative of poverty and disaster. While my young students took notes on her anecdotes, vocal cadence and nonverbal cues, I thought about the art of remembering well, as a community, the importance of our many stories.

On Sunday, the fifteenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, I sit in the dark, holding my daughter while she naps and reading what New Yorker writers wrote in the days and weeks following the catastrophe. Closer accounts, from writers older than I was at the time, they still hit home. I cry more freely now than I did when I was seventeen, with more to lose, more to love.

And I wonder if next year–or even next week–I’ll go back for that speech, or another like it. I close my eyes and see the President, wearing a hard hat and holding a bullhorn, embracing first responders. They don’t remember that; perhaps I should show them. I wonder if the season has arrived when I’m teaching about tragedy instead of remembering with, and if that’s just as important, after all.

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