9/11 Scrapbook: Eighth-Graders' Journals From the Day After

PHOTO: A hijacked commercial plane approaches the World Trade Center shortly before crashing into the landmark skyscraper.
Seth McAllister/AFP/Getty Images

At the Summit Country Day School in Cincinnati, about 650 miles from the World Trade Center, students at the school heard bits and pieces about what was going on in New York City Sept. 11, 2001.

Information traveled differently in 2001. Daily tweets average upwards of 140 million today, but tweeting was just the sound birds made in 2001. If students wanted to hang out with their friends or hear the latest gossip, they would hop on their bikes or use landlines. No one had Facebook or Skype.

In math class at Summit, students heard that a plane hit a building in New York. It sounded far away. In the hallway, they heard that people got hurt. In language arts class, they saw their teacher's worried face and teary eyes. At lunch, they talked to their friends and heard fears about traveling parents. By the time they got to social studies class, they felt a brand new combination of fear, confusion and anger.

The next day, Sept. 12, the eighth-grade social studies teacher, Mark Schmidt, had them write down what they were thinking. These are some excerpts from their reflections.

Ten years later, students and teacher from writing exercise reflect on life then and now

"I found out about the tragedy in 4th period. I heard about it from Mr. Schmidt. Someone told me earlier [though] that something was going on. I will remember Sept. 11, 2011 forever as long as I live. I remember everything about that day; exactly what I said to people and what I thought about."

At 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, when the first plane hit the first tower at the World Trade Center, the Summit was only 30 minutes into the school day. Teachers heard the news first.

"You try to remain calm," Mark Schmidt said. "We wanted to teach like it was a regular day and not let the kids know about it."

He said that "kids tend to overreact" when they hear too much too fast, especially when so much of it might go over their heads.

Before this day, most of the young teenagers had never heard of terrorists, al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. These words would become all too familiar in the days that followed.

"I will remember Sept. 11, 2001 forever as long as I live," one student wrote Sept. 12.

Although these 13- and 14-year-olds had yet to grasp the details and implications of what happened, the gravity of the event was clear from the very beginning.

"I can't believe this happened, and I think it is a terrible thing. How these terrorists could plot out killing 5,000+ people is beyond my comprehension."

'Surprised at how angry the eighth-graders were'

"September 11th will always stick out in my mind as a day of tragedy, destruction, and death. This is one of those questions that people will ask: "Where were you when the World Trade Towers were hit?" This is similar to the shooting of President Kennedy. … Whenever the question comes up, I will remember sitting in the cold science room when the intercom switched on telling us of a national disaster, the death of thousands, the collapse of the World Trade Center."

Navigating new territory as a teacher, Mark Schmidt contemplated how to work through the event with his students. He decided writing would be a good way to explore what they were thinking and feeling.

"I think when you write things down, it's more contemplative and you can wade through the emotions," Schmidt said. "Academics are important, but it's also important to go through and see what the kids were thinking about."

Schmidt thinks personal histories are an important part of learning about and participating in history, and he was amazed with what his students came up with.

"I was surprised at how angry the eighth-graders were; there were some real visceral emotions," Schmidt said. "I was surprised at how many kids were angry and not scared. There were so many bright kids in that class who were very, very astute."

While the students expressed anger at Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, many were firm in their conviction that a distinction should be made between terrorists and innocent citizens.

One student wrote, "I think the U.S. should find the major terrorist leaders in Afghanistan and bomb them. The U.S. shouldn't bomb all of Afghanistan though. If they bombed all of Afghanistan, innocent people would die."

Schmidt kept a bulletin board with some of the students' reflections up for a year after the event. When he took them down, he kept about 30, but without the names because he thought they should be anonymous. This year, he has put them back up for the current middle school students to see.

But he says that the current eighth-graders, who would have been three or four years old in 2001, don't have the same reaction to the reflections.

"They don't relate to a world where anybody could go past security to watch your relative leave on a plane," Schmidt said. "It's a brand new paradigm."

'I drew an airplane hijacked by aliens'

"It was about 9:30 in the morning during my piano lesson (when I heard about the tragedy). My piano teacher kept getting a lot of calls from relatives because her daughter used to live 1 block from the World Trade Center. She told me that planes had crashed into the buildings. I didn't really think that it was on purpose so I wasn't really scared. Later it became more real. I will always remember this for the rest of my life."

Today, the 13 and 14-year-olds from that eighth-grade class are in their early 20s. They have celebrated milestones such as high school and college graduations and many are at their first jobs. They have grown up as the "9/11 Generation."

Roger Weber, 23, was one of the eighth-graders at the Summit and he has a "chilling" memory of the day that he did not share with almost anyone, including his parents, until years after 2001.

As a creative icebreaker at the beginning of the school year, Weber's English teacher gave each student a white piece of paper with two circles on it and they were instructed to incorporate the circles into a drawing. While many drew snowmen and bicycles, Weber did not.

"I have no idea why, but I drew an airplane hijacked by aliens crashing into a building in New York," Weber said. "I wrote that this was flight 911 and I called the building Tall Tower."

He also specified in his writing that the plane had departed from Cleveland, coincidentally the same city where flight 93 was diverted to avoid another attack.

The drawing was done Sept. 5 or 6. His teacher was shocked and Weber was confused.

"I didn't really grasp it at that point," Weber said. "I had been to the World Trade Center on family vacations, but I certainly wasn't even beginning to think about the loss of life or huge plume of smoke or absolute destruction or terror of the moment."

As an aspiring architect, Weber kept thinking about what the New York skyline would look like without the two towers. "For the remainder of that fall, probably the whole year, I had a whole different mindset," Weber recalled. "I would go to a football game and think, 'What if it was this event that was going to get attacked?' Or I would think, 'What if this was the only building on earth?' It was kind of a fearful thinking."

Today, Weber is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who majored in architecture and is completing a two-year master's degree at Harvard in urban planning. His dream of being an architect is becoming a reality.

'Had never been exposed to trauma on that level'

"'The World Trade Center has been hit.' It was math class. Mrs. Varick was at the front of the room and looked like she was on the verge of crying. 'Two planes ran into them this morning, both of the Twin Towers have collapsed.' I remember thinking, 'What if that was my Dad?' The rest of the day I couldn't wait to get home. I had heard of the Pentagon and the crash in Pennsylvania. I was scared to death. Talk of the hijacking was the only sound I heard. I will never forget September 11th. I have never been so scared or horrified."

Mark Dato, 22, was also a member of the eighth-grade class.

"I remember being in class and I remember somebody coming in and telling [my teacher] about it and she was clearly upset, but we didn't know what was going on," Dato said. "We heard the bare bones."

Dato said that it was not until around 2 p.m. the afternoon of Sept. 11 that he got a better sense of what was going on when he got on the computer in one of his classes.

"I remember looking at these pictures … we had never been exposed to trauma on that level," he said.

While Dato said the teacher did not talk much about what was happening that day, he got a much fuller picture at home. Growing up with "news junkie" parents, he said they did not try to prevent him from seeing what was happening and he spent the night watching the news.

"I do remember just kind of realizing, things have changed," Dato said. "It kind of put this extra level of anxiety [on us] and made us think on a level that we were never made to think on before."

Dato doesn't remember being scared on a day-to-day basis, but does recall having nightmares about being attacked and believes the tragedy played a large role in shaping the collective psyche of his generation.

"The War on Terror" has been going on for almost half of Dato's life and he thinks it has made his generation "jaded." "We don't really have faith that these wars will solve problems or actually end anything," Dato said. "That day kind of made these things real for us. We'd studied wars in history class, but never really knew what it meant until after September 11."

After graduating high school, Dato left Cincinnati for New York and went to Columbia University, where he majored in art history. He now works for New York Cares, which has played a large role in planning 9/11 tribute projects.

Dato said their focus is on the "lasting legacies" of 9/11 that can be positive. "We can turn tragedy into a legacy of giving back," he said. "When people think of the weeks after Sept. 11, people were in such solidarity. We're using this day to move forward and remember, and as a day of service."

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