by Molly Wright Starkweather, Kaplan University
Since moving to New York, I have seen in local store windows a sticker that says, “We Will Remember.” With each year’s Patriot Day, I reflect on how the events of 9/11 have shaped who I am, especially as a writer. I have found that, in a situation as traumatic as what transpired that day, many of us had to stop all we were doing in order to absorb what was happening around us, but in that stillness of listening was so much activity. As a writer and as a tutor of writing, I see the day as a unique opportunity to discuss how that process of remembering impacts us all as writers.
It occurred to me that people tend to take on one of three roles during a crisis. A person will be an active participant on the scene, an active reporter of the situation, or an engaged listener taking in all that is going on. Because we have freedom of speech in this country, any of us can talk or write about the event. No matter where you were on that day, if you have any memory of September 11, 2001, you have a stake in how that day is remembered.
Where were you? This is a question I ask myself and others . I was almost eighteen. I was taking a test in my senior U.S. Government class. It was 9:30 in the morning in Southwest Georgia. An announcement came on that there had been a bombing at the World Trade Center. On hearing the word “bombing,” my mind went back six years earlier to the Oklahoma City bombing, where a domestic terrorist drove a pick-up truck full of explosives into a federal building. I had no idea that what had actually happened was well beyond that frame of reference.
By 10 a.m. all the classrooms had televisions brought in. We saw Peter Jennings walk us through the event, show us the footage, and give us whatever updates he could. We learned all that we could from the television. News websites could not update quickly enough. Facebook and Twitter would not be invented for years. Some of us had analog cell phones, but we kept them off. We were told that all local schools and businesses had been ordered by a nearby Army post to avoid using phones or internet so that the military could have clear networks for communications. In short, we were stuck, just watching and listening.
But it was not just watching and listening – We were organizing facts and analyzing the situation in our minds. Our minds were racing, processing, trying to wrap around all of it. Imagine a high school full of hundreds of teenagers focusing on keeping our mouths closed and our ears and eyes opened, bent on memorizing every detail of the day. The teachers that day modeled the same active listening. At the time, we needed to be an engaged audience. We needed to participate in a pattern of communication that has existed for ages, a ritual in which a world-changing event would occur, then a group of witnesses would build the narrative around the event by sharing their stories, then audiences would hear the bigger story of what happened, and then finally the audience members would become storytellers who could carry the message even further.
I was not in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, but I can tell the story, because I have been an active audience member. When I work on Patriot Day, if students bring up the subject, I ask them, “Where were you?” Remembering 9/11 is only one opportunity for teachers and tutors to give students the voice they need to tell their stories. If, as Xu, Park, and Baek (2011) describe, “When students pay more attention to the writing process, they will have ownership of their stories” (p. 184), then is the reverse not also true? Will student writers who first have the opportunity to share a meaningful experience find the authority to carve out an effective writing process? The answer is yes, especially if these writers recognize where they were once part of the audience.
Storytelling is a ritual for all meaningful memories and lessons we share with each other as human beings. Listening as an audience member leads to speaking as an author, with authority, on a subject. Listening is at once passively active and actively passive. Remembering is a similarly paradoxical process. How do you remember?
Xu, Y., Park, H., & Baek, Y. (2011). A new approach toward digital storytelling: An activity focused on writing self-efficacy in a virtual learning environment. Educational Technology & Society, 14(4), 181-191.