9/11 and swimming

The twentieth anniversary of 9/11 snuck up on me this year. Until people started posting their “where I was when…” on social media, I hadn’t really processed what it meant to me.

My first thought was that I needed to do something to commemorate the occasion with the kids, explain to them why the date mattered. Where I was. The people I knew who were affected. The stories I had heard – to pass them down to the kids, to make meaning.

Full disclosure - this is the Pedernales River. We were too busy trying not to drown to take pictures at the San Marcos River.

And instead, we took them swimming. We went to Palmetto State Park to swim in the San Marcos River, I banged my leg on a giant rock and got a gnarly bone bruise, and we talked about palmettos and spent the day giggling, trying to avoid poison ivy, and with Cyrus and Alma jumping into the role of medic to try to fix my knee. We got barbecue from Lockhart on the way home (I ate the pecan crumble).

I’m a part of about a million (secular, progressive, anti-colonial, this and that) homeschooling groups on facebook, and so lots of parents were posting how they were teaching their kids about 9/11. Most of them were taking the Mr. Rogers approach of looking for heroes and helpers in the tragedy, and I love a lot of that.

But the part of that I got stuck on was how to explain the moment that we needed heroes and helpers – where to start the narrative.

I have a friend who teaches US History, and she spends the first 6 weeks of the semester not mentioning white people. She describes how students get itchier and antsier, sometimes confrontational, reminding her that this was supposed to be about their history. And she uses it to show them that their entire lives, the narrative of this country started with white people – 1492, Columbus sails the ocean blue, and boom! History begins. Even accounts that “fairly” treat the encounter with indigenous folks do so from a perspective of victimhood – indigenous people were here, and they were raped/swindled/inflicted with disease/forced off their land. She wants to tell the story of the history of the continent starting with the success of the first people who were here – what they built. How they saw the world. How their civilizations flourished. And then the story of encounter with Europeans starts on their territory, literally.

I love this idea, and it challenges me every day to think about origin stories with our kids. Where does it start? What is the why? And I found myself incapable of coming up with an origin story for 9/11 that had the level of simplicity that my kids could understand and the level of depth and nuance I found necessary to do the subject justice. So we went swimming.

What are the principles that I want my children to understand when it’s time to explain 9/11?

I want them to understand colonialism, and the long history of imperialism in the Middle East by western powers. I want them to understand how the Allied Powers after WWI created states by drawing lines on maps that weren’t there before, oftentimes separating families and communities from each other to keep the balance of power. And how the same kind of manipulation and enforcement of borders happened after WWII, with the creation of Israel. How we supported a coup in Iran to put the Shah into power, and then propped him up until the revolution in the late 1970s. How we armed the Mujahideen in Afghanistan to help them resist the Soviets in the 1980s, around the time I was born. How a 20th century filled with western meddling, resource extraction, and side taking led to a region with no democracies, weak civil society, and tremendous grievance against the US – all of these conflicts so messy and complicated that it’s impossible to sort through who the good guys are, except to say that states are often acting in naked self-interest and to take their human rights claims with great suspicion.

And against this backdrop, 9/11 happened, which changed the skyline of our beloved New York forever, which gave carte blanch for the killing of millions of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan over the proceeding 20 years, prompted the growth of private military companies, intense polarization at home, weakened our country’s commitment to democracy, and created space for China to assume position as ascendent global hegemon.

But come on friends – that’s a lot for an Intro to Comparative Politics class, and there’s no way for my seven-year-old to find an entrance into that conversation.

But…we can start small. We can start with talk of shifting borders and how states aren’t real, and lines are drawn on the map for different reasons.

We can start geographically when we’re talking about wars – how the uniqueness of our geography (and our genocidal policy of manifest destiny) means that we don’t face and real potential adversaries on our continent (despite what the movie Canadian Bacon may want you to believe). Since the end of the 1800s, we’ve fought our wars overseas, which means other countries have faced the bulk of the non-military casualties.

We can start concrete, talking about how there are unjust wars and states wage wars for unjust reasons.

We can start ethically, talking about how 3,000 people died on 9/11, a terrible tragedy, and over million people died in the years following in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that is also a tragedy. An American life is just as precious as an Iraqi or Afghani life.

And then we can focus in on 9/11 on human terms. The stories of the people who died. How it changed the fabric of our country. The heroes who rushed into burning buildings, who comforted survivors. The accounts of New Yorkers who describe what they saw and felt on that day, the taste of the air and the smell of burning.

If we had started with the heroes and helpers narrative, my fear would be that their first exposure to 9/11 would have been that the United States was the victim. And that’s undoubtedly true on a human level. But for them to understand the politics and history around the event, there’s so much more to explain. How the great story of the twentieth century is that states are culpable and citizens are pay the horrible price for their realpolitik. And one day, maybe on the 21st anniversary of 9/11 or maybe the 22nd, I’ll get closer to being able to explain it to them. And until then we’ll be laying the foundation. While we do a lot of swimming.

This picture. It kills me.

What are we reading?

The theme for our homeschooling this year is Logic and Legends and Medieval History (we loosely follow Torchlight Curriculum) and it’s SO FUN. We’re reading Ingraine the Brave by Cornelia Funke as our first fiction novel. It’s the story of a little girl growing up in a magical family who wants to be a knight and it’s the first book in a long time that Cyrus wants to read 40 or 50 pages of a day. It cracks us up, the story is great, and the pictures are gorgeous. We’re loving it.

I haven’t read anything I loved in a while, but I just finished Ben Winters’ The Quiet Boy. I spent a long time thinking about the book after I was done, because I honestly didn’t love the plot, but the characters were some of the most interesting people I’ve read in a long time. I wish I could pick them up and put them in a different, better book.

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