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9/11 won't be the same next year

9/11 Memorial at the site of Ground Zero, NYC. (Ian Childs/Photo)

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say something crazy. Next year, college classroom discussions about 9/11 are going to change. It won’t matter what party holds the majority in Congress and it won’t matter who is governor of Ohio next year, our discussions are going to change, and that fact is totally inevitable.

September 11, 2018, marked the 17th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A few days before the occasion, my brother texted me, without prompt, “Have they taught you about 9/11?” I was shocked by the question, confused as to why he would send me such a bizarre prompt out of the blue. He continued, “You were too young. Just wondering if you’ve extensively learned about it. And have watched the videos. Those are mostly too edited. They don’t show the bodies falling. The sound they made on video when they hit.” I then realized why my brother was asking me this. My brother is 11 and a half years older than me. On September 11, 2001, I was a little over two years old. My brother was in eighth grade.

I was alive for 9/11, but he lived it.

If you ask any student at Ohio Northern right now what they were doing when the planes hit the Twin Towers, they’ll probably all tell you a similar story. “I was at daycare”, or “I was watching PBS Kids,” or “I was playing outside.” Almost every student that attends Ohio Northern University right now was just a toddler on September 1, 2001. Even 6th-year Pharmacy students were about six years old on that fateful day. I would contend that hardly any student right now could say they remembered the moment the planes hit the Twin Towers. The current freshmen class, many of whom were born in 2000, were just a year old.

That’s why our discussions are going to change next year. A year from now, when we’re looking back on 9/11 and recounting where we were that day, the freshmen class won’t be able to say. Some were in their cribs or their mother’s arms. But some of them weren’t even born. Instead of discussing 9/11 with a sense of shared knowledge, there is going to be a division in those participating in the conversation: those who were alive when it happened, and those who weren’t.

By no means do I think I experienced 9/11 to the same extent that my brother did, or that anyone who was old enough to understand the implications of 9/11 did. I know that I was watching Sesame Street when it happened, but I only know that because that’s what my mom told me I was doing. I was a toddler during 9/11, and no amount of effort can make me remember that moment. But for my brother, and most other Americans, that moment is unforgettable. For my brother, life before 9/11 was waiting at the airport gate with someone until their flight took off; it was believing that the US would never be attacked. For me, life before 9/11 was pacifiers and diapers. For those born after September 11, 2001, life before 9/11 was, well, before life. It is history.

When prompted, my brother could talk about 9/11 from first-hand experience. “That was the year that I think myself and a lot of people gained a fear and mistrust of the world. That we didn’t live in these safe and happy bubbles,” he told me, “They almost canceled our class trip to Washington DC, which wasn’t until the spring. However, the administration decided to go ahead. And all those months later there was still a tension. The adults were on edge, imagining the worst happening again so soon after.”

If you were to ask me about 9/11, I could tell you the outcomes. I could tell you about the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and the War on Terror, but that’s just because of a couple of class lessons, a few television documentaries and my experience growing up in a time where the Iraq war conquered news media. I wasn’t aware of 9/11 when it happened, but I still understand it was a major historical event that occurred in my lifetime. Next year, when the freshmen move into Founders Complex and Stambaugh, many of them won’t be able to say that same sentiment.

So, 9/11 won’t be the same next year. For many freshmen, 9/11 will be a piece of history outside of the scope of their lifetime. This progression has been happening slowly over time. I am at the tail end of 9/11’s legacy. Talking to my brother about 9/11 is hard because I find it hard to relate to him. Talking to my professors carries the same burden. I cannot begin to imagine how students who were not alive during 9/11 will begin to relate to their professors, to their older classmates, or to the information discussed in class.