By Liz Bowie The Baltimore Sun
Vivienne Sharp is too young to carry with her vivid memories of September 11, 2001, but she had a solemn reaction as she walked in the rain last week amid the long benches of the Pentagon’s memorial to those who died that day.
“It is a beautiful piece of architecture. It is really sensory,” she said. Every one of the benches has the name of a victim carved into it, all 184. “The gravel is crunching when you walk on it and you can hear the water flowing under the benches.”
Sharp is 11 years old, and like other students born after 9/11, she’ll be among the first to learn about the terrorist attacks as a historic event. Her new awareness of the day comes from an unusual course offered to middle-schoolers this summer by Carroll County public schools.
The students in her class had seen the images of the World Trade Center towers falling, but most everything else they knew was vague and lacked historical context. Sharp did not know who Osama bin Laden was. “It is really interesting. I didn’t understand it was so gory and sad.”
Their teacher, Mike Chrvala, wanted to teach about the events in a way that would leave students thinking about those in the U.S. who sacrificed their lives or helped others after four planes were hijacked and flown into the two towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.
Chrvala likes to teach history through the stories of individuals, so he brought into his two classes a firefighter who was part of the search-and-rescue efforts, and a survivor who had been installing technology in the north tower when it was hit by an airliner.
They have told their stories, and the students have gone on two field trips — one to the Pentagon. Jeffrey McAndrew, who was working in one of the towers, relayed the story of his escape.
“That is the first time I have talked about it in front of a group of more than five or six,” he said. In the past decade, discussing the day has gotten easier, he said, so the experience — with children quizzing him on many details — wasn’t difficult.
“I actually really enjoyed It,” McAndrew said. “I think it is something we need to teach the younger generation about.”
Because he was there on the ground and in the building, he said, the story was more compelling for students.
Carroll County holds free enrichment classes each year on subjects that include art, play-writing and science. Dick Thompson, the county’s coordinator of the summer courses, thought a class on 9/11 could provide important lessons for children born after the event. It is not taught in great depth during the school year.
The history of the attacks is supposed to be covered in U.S. history classes in Maryland.
The response was larger than expected, with 52 students signed up for the class. Thompson found Chrvala — an eighth-grade history teacher at Shiloh Middle School who seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the event and its aftermath — to teach two sessions of the class each day.
On Chrvala’s chalkboard is a list of the names of average individuals who were heroes that day and whose stories he has relayed to the students.
“I am passionate [about it],” he said. “I grew up 15 miles outside New York City. My dad was a firefighter.”
After just over a week of instruction, the students have a more precise knowledge of the facts than many of those who watched the tragedy unfold on television that day.
One girl reeled off the times of each important event that day, beginning at 8:46 when the first plane crashed into the north tower. The students, who are rising sixth- and seventh-graders, were taught about the value of multicultural societies, the conspiracy theories that lack credence and the American wars that followed.
“I think it feels different than studying history,” said Casey Jillson, 12. “I don’t think I will be the same person after this. It was a life-changing event that everyone should know about.”
Chrvala has not sugar-coated the details of the event — students learned for instance that people jumped out of windows in the towers. One student said he believed teachers in his school had chosen him in part because they believed he could handle the somber material.
In the end, Jillson said, the event isn’t just “a bad thing” but has resulted in some positive postscripts. “Our country learned to be more secure and safe,” she said.
For 11-year-old Ethan Seiler, the history, “is all about love.” He said the response of the firefighters to run to save people was about love.
Chrvala said has taught that terrorists acted with hate, but that many people in the country responded with compassion. One of his examples cites Susan Retik and Patti Quigley, who were widowed on September 11 and started a nonprofit that helps widows in Afghanistan gain job skills. “It was a tragic day, but so much good has come out of it,” Chrvala said.
But they also are middle school students, and so one question was this: Do you think Ground Zero is haunted?
Earlier this week, the students engaged in a discussion of how they might be able to spread the knowledge they have gained in their schools. They had a multitude of ideas: raise money for local firefighters, start a September 11 school club that would teach students about the event, organize a run, write a book and start a charity.
Chrvala hopes his students will “become little torchbearers to teach about 9/11.”