It’s been 20 years since the Twin Towers collapsed on September 11, 2001, which now means that high school students were nowhere near alive when the events actually took place.
The history teachers in local schools remember that day vividly — some were just children themselves in school that warm Tuesday morning.
Districts across the Long Island now include what happened that day in their curriculum — a day that impacted nearly 500 Long Islanders who were among the nearly 3,000 people killed at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and United Airlines Flight 93.
At Port Jefferson high school, 11th grade U.S. history teacher Jesse Rosen said that the district uses the story of one of its own to teach students about what happened — the documentary “Man in Red Bandana.”
“As a department, we were exposed to this heroic story through a former graduate of PJHS, James Burke,” Rosen said. “James’ uncle, William F. Burke Jr., gave his life in the line of duty as an FDNY member on September 11, 2001. As a result, James and his family were introduced to other stories of heroism.”
Rosen, who is in his 15th year at the high school, said he was a freshman at SUNY Albany during the September 11 attacks.
“I remember an introductory to psychology class being canceled, walking back to my dorm seeing many other students with canceled classes,” he said. “After putting on the television in my dorm room, I recall watching the plane hit the second tower. Above all else, I recall a state of shock and confusion. At the time, I was completely unaware of the magnitude of the events that were unfolding.”
Bryan Vaccaro, a global studies teacher at the high school, was younger than his current students in 2001. He was in third grade.
“I can vividly recall that day moment by moment,” he said. “Most kids in my class were being picked up from school but me, and I wondered why everyone was leaving but me. When I got home seeing the images unfold on television was surreal, almost as if you couldn’t believe what was happening. An extra level of worry settled in as well since my uncle was a firefighter in the FDNY in Company Squad 270 at the time whose main focus was search and rescue.”
Vaccaro, who has been with the school district for five years, said that when he has to teach his students about September 11, it’s important to tackle the topic head on and make sure students are aware of how the events unfolded that day.
“Many don’t know that there were four total planes in three different locations, simply because at this point none of them were born,” he said. “We always welcome hard-hitting questions in the classroom and discuss thoroughly.”
He added when students learn about the events, they’re overwhelmed with emotion — shocked because although they’ve been exposed to images and videos of the attacks, they have minimal knowledge about what actually happened.
“By the end of the lesson I think their understanding is heavily increased,” he said. “My main premise for my 9/11 lesson is to prove that there are impactful moments in history where time stands still, and you can vividly depict where you were at that specific time.”
Vaccaro said each generation has those moments.
“Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, the Space Shuttle Challenger, 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, etc.,” he noted. “And I make sure the students understand that it could happen next week, next year, 20 years from now, but there will be those moments for them. It makes history real and personal.”
Over the last 20 years, Island residents have felt a deep connection to that day. Vaccaro said that while it’s a sensitive and hard topic to talk about, it needs to be done.
“I don’t think it’s difficult to teach a subject that hits home for Long Islanders,” he said. “It’s something that needs to be embraced wholeheartedly. It’s part of our story as a region and a country. It showed our resolve as people and proof that we can unite in times of chaos and tragedy — a characteristic that makes us the greatest country in the world.”
High school social studies and special education teacher Melissa Zinger has been an educator for 15 years, the last 10 at Earl. L. Vandermeulen High School.
“On September 11, 2001, I was attending college on Long Island and was at home,” she said. “I remember my mother calling and asking me if I had heard what happened and to turn on the news. As we were on the phone the second plane hit. As I continued watching the news, my dad stormed through the front door in a panic after he raced home from work. He immediately did two things. He tried calling the Red Cross as he told me, ‘They will need blood and supplies,’ and next he made sure our American flag was hanging outside.”
Zinger said that reflecting on what happened 20 years ago, she realized that her parents’ reactions were different than what she was feeling personally.
“I watched the day unfold in shock, and my dad watched the day unfold with fear,” she said.
Now as a teacher, she said her approach to teaching about 9/11 has changed.
“In my first few years of teaching, the approach was more reflective as students had their own memories of that day,” she said. “And over the years, the students only know about 9/11 from what they have heard, so the approach has to also be educational, informative and reflective.”
As an educator, she has her own connection, experiences and emotions from that time, but she is able to see what her students feel depending on the closeness to their homes and experiences of their families.
“Over the years the responses from students have changed as the students have no longer ‘lived through it’ as opposed to have lived through the impacts from it,” Zinger added. “In the beginning years of my teaching, students would share their memories of that day, one student I recall even remembering the exact name of the color crayon he was using when his mother got the call. Presently, I believe that the students are aware of the events and some more personally than others, however, a true understanding of how tragic and life changing for a country I believe they don’t. All they know is life post-9/11.”