I was just finishing a proof we would be discussing in my Calculus III class this past Tuesday when I heard the bagpipes.
It was one of those proofs that involves a list of letters with little subscripts that one has to work hard to keep from meshing into one confusing mess. It took me a few tries to find a way to present the proof so that it was clear where each term came from and where it was also immediately obvious which terms cancelled each other out and which got added together. I made a copy of my final version to give out in the next class, but I also hoped that my students had enough luck with their own attempts as to not need my version of the proof. I took a breath at completing my project, looked at the clock on my computer, and noted that it was 8:46. It was then that I heard the sad, wailing sound coming from the other side of campus.
It took me a second to realize what I was hearing, and then a second more to realize why I was hearing it. The bagpipes were part of a memorial service being held across campus to commemorate the most memorable day in the lives of our generation, September 11th, 2001. Even eleven years later, when I realized what they were reminding us of, I began to cry. I suspect that I will always be brought to tears when I think of the lives that were lost that day, and the little taste of Hell that we all experienced as we watched the Twin Towers implode over and over again on news reports. I also know that I cry because it was not just buildings in Manhattan that were destroyed that day, but also our own sense of safety and security that was undermined, along with a general sense that that world is a good place that has our best interest in mind. I only wish I could reclaim that feeling and give it back to my daughter, who has grown up in a world without such assumed safety.
My daughter is aware of what happened that day; indeed, it would be impossible for her not to know of it, since they talk about it at school, just as they talk of other dark chapters of History, from slavery and discrimination in the United States to the Holocaust. It would be irresponsible of us to shield her from this truth, but there is still a part of me that wants to protect her from this knowledge.
As much as I want to protect her from the knowledge of the horrors of that day, I also want to teach her of the good that we saw that horrible day, even if it was not immediately obvious to us in our shaken state. She should know of the selfless firefighters and other first responders who gave their lives to try to save total strangers, and of the many anonymous people who stopped to help others, not because they could see any gain from doing so, but because they were, simply, fellow Americans on a very tragic day of our country’s history. I want to tell her of the scene of a group of shaken members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, assembling on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. to sing “God Bless America” together, even as the rest of us still found ourselves speechless. And I want to tell her that there were some who, while facing their own death, found ways to fight back and make sure that the horror did not multiply even further. Most of all, I want to assure her that we are doing everything we can to restore to her and to her generation the innocence that was almost lost that Monday in September eleven years ago.
And so I ask you, my readers, how do you talk to your children about such evils? How do you help them to be optimistic even in the face of such tragic realities?