Community reflects on 20th anniversary of 9/11


Illustration by Sydney Fener

Claire Conner and Emmy Zhang

As United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center, History Teacher Sandra Brasda hunched in front of a clunky monitor in her first-period typing class. Her computer barely warmed up before she was approached by a friend who informed her that two planes had flown into both of the twin towers. 17-year-old Brasda rushed home and turned on her television. Although her vision was blurred with tears, she could not pull her eyes away from the screen as smoke and debris enveloped the New York City skyline.

“Even though I was not there and did not experience it, I was deeply affected,” Brasda said. “It resonated with me. The path that I had been on with high school and college and everything that seemed important to me did not really matter anymore.” 

One week after the attacks, Brasda drove herself to the Air Force recruiting center in Madison, Wis., where she enlisted and began her military service.

“The world is really big,” Brasda said. “It is confusing and scary and difficult to make sense of it. Most individuals do not think on the meta-level. Most individuals think on the granular level. Like, ‘What can I do? How can I make sense of my world?’ I was not trying to change the world or be part of a new foreign policy. I simply wanted to help.” 

Nearly ten years after Brasda lived through the 9/11 attack, Izzy Welsh ’22 saw video footage of it for the first time as an elementary school student. 

“My parents decided to sit me down and explain what had happened,” Welsh said. “They thought it was important for me to learn about it without sugar-coating, so they showed me a news clip on YouTube of the towers burning. I do not think I really processed the magnitude of the event given that I was in second grade, but as I have grown older, I have come to greatly appreciate my parents telling me at a young age. It has enabled me to understand the significance of the day on the broader American populace and collective conscience.”

For Juliet Katz ’23, an understanding of 9/11 came naturally; growing up in New York City, she said her close proximity to the site of the attack allowed her to empathize with adults who lived through it.

“It is hard not to feel connected to the trauma experienced during that moment in history even though I was not born yet,” Katz said. “Each year on the anniversary of 9/11, there was a somber feeling in the city. There were so many conversations and so much in the news in New York as plans for the Freedom Tower were being executed, not to mention the gaping hole that existed downtown for years. This crater, where so many people lost their lives and their loved ones, was a constant emotional and geographical reminder of the loss of life and safety that scared America.” 

Despite this connection to the attacks, Katz said her perception of 9/11 differs from adults now that more information is available. 

“Like any major trauma in history, living through an experience first-hand and learning about it can never be the same,” Katz said. “For those adults and children who experienced 9/11 in real-time, […] the impact and unpredictability had to be painful. Today and future generations will learn and be horrified by 9/11, but we have the benefit of hindsight.”

Echoing Katz’s sentiment, Simon Lee ’23 said growing up in the aftermath of 9/11 changed his interpretation of the attacks. 

“We didn’t live through those attacks, but we very much matured in a world that was shaped by them,” Lee said. “We live in a world that is shaped by the war on [terrorism] and the continued surveillance by things like the Patriot Act. We live in a world that is shaped by America intervening in other countries and trying to utilize asymmetric warfare even when it does not yield fruit.”

Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, almost 7,000 miles away from New York City. His parents grew up in Korea during the late 1980s and 1990s when the U.S.’s military allies were influenced by its power at the end of the Cold War. 

“America just stood as the unmatched superpower, and, militarily, they really had no pure ideological contender,” Lee said. “To see the twin towers fall was really emblematic of what my dad always talks about— the Colossus being brought to his knees. [It] is a really melodramatic image, but it kind of reflects on the thoughts of people who are from countries who were ‘better on America’s side during the Cold War’ like South Korea. They assumed that nothing could ever touch the United States because it is too well protected and powerful.”

In order to avoid these assumptions, Elizabeth Johnstone ’24 said students must learn about the historical context of events like 9/11.

“It is essential for students to learn about 9/11 and the history of terrorism,” Johnstone said. “In today’s age of re-posting the first thing we see about current events, it is more important than ever to learn the facts about such a large part of 21st century American history. Terrorism is such a sensitive topic that we need to speak about with respect. A more informed society leads to a smarter and safer one.”

As information is presented on streaming and social media platforms during the 20th anniversary of the attacks, Department Head of Interdisciplinary Studies and History/Social Studies Larry Klein said the upper school History Department decided to provide a space in the classroom to discuss and reflect on 9/11. 

“Teachers within the History Department have chosen to engage their students in various ways in connection with and connecting to the historical event that we refer to as ‘9/11,’ especially in light of this being the 20th anniversary of the events of that day in 2001,” Klein said. “As we have passed through the era in which our students had experienced for themselves the events of that day, it is part of our charge as teachers to link students into important, foundational moments in our collective history. We hope these discussions and activities have, in this instance, accomplished that.”

In pursuing Klein’s goal of helping students understand both the historical significance and emotional impact of the 9/11 attacks, all AP U.S. History teachers assigned an oral history project in which students were asked to interview a family member or friend who was alive during the attacks. Brasda said by hearing real-life experiences and stories of those adults, students were able to build a more meaningful understanding of the event.

“For me, it is not just about learning the facts,” Brasda said. “It is about having a connection with history because history is just a collection of what stories get told, whose stories we tell, how we tell them and how we remember them. As a historian and teacher, it is about living history, living memory and what we do with this. So I want my students to have a personal, individual experience—whatever that may be—with 9/11.”

Lee said for him, the project was a way to explore dominant narratives about the 9/11 attacks and think about how they affect global action.

“I think the narrative starts when we put troops on Saudi soil or when we sold weapons in Afghanistan, which led to the Taliban becoming a threat in the first place,” Lee said. “Big events like this become so emblematic of errors that what happens before and after them kind of fades away, and we stopped thinking about the context in which they are situated. I would love to see commemorations of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 focus more on that. This is obviously not to trivialize or diminish the suffering or the death that happened on 9/11 but just so we can situate it more properly in social and historical context. That way, we can hopefully understand how to better prevent anything like that from ever happening again.”