Few events are seared into our memory, and bring the country together-not as Democrat and Republican, not as Black and White, but as Americans, or as human beings. And it's amazing how your age determines how you remember things.
In my parents' generation, the event that shocked the nation was President Kennedy's assassination. Few other events-from the end of the Vietnam war, to Mt. Saint Helens' eruption-held the same sway. My mother-three years old at the time-remembers the day with my grandmother crying and wondering why "Mickey Mouse Club" was not on that afternoon.
Fortunately, as a nation, events like this come once, maybe twice, in a generation. I remember three national events quite vividly.
In kindergarten, both of the classes were rushed to the library to see a space shuttle lift off. This was no ordinary space shuttle mission, though. There was a teacher on board-the first civilian to go into space. She had been picked from all the nominees. This was history, and our teachers wanted us to watch it. We sat on the orange carpet of the elementary school library and gazed up at the seemingly huge TV screen. I can't remember what we did before liftoff-goofed off, probably. But I do remember that all of us kindergarteners cheered when the fireworks were set off in honor of the astronauts going into space. We didn't realize that the shuttle wasn't supposed to have exploded, nor did we understand when our teachers started crying, and rushed us back to our classrooms, and continued the day in a somber mood. I didn't understand why my father wouldn't let me fly my plastic Challenger Space Shuttle kite anymore-it's still tucked away in its box somewhere.
The second event I remember vividly was the start of the Persian Gulf War. It was January, I was in sixth grade, and had stayed after school to practice for a school musical. My mother picked me up after practice, and she had tears in her eyes. Mom was raised Quaker, and had registered as a conscientious objector to war, as had one of my uncles. My other uncle saw the Navy as a way to get an education and see the world, and was serving on an air craft carrier. When I asked her what the problem was, and why she was crying, she told me that a war had been started, and she was afraid for her brother. For the next two months, we watched missiles hit Israel, watched men in their brown fatigues, and prayed that my uncle's ship would not be sent over. He was, but only after the war was over and sanctions had been in place for months.
I also remember where I was as I watched the twin towers fall-as does everyone else. I was in college, engaged, and living with my grandparents. My mother called and woke me up at 6:30 a.m.-entirely too early for a college student-and told me to turn on the TV. I did seconds after the second plane hit, alerted my grandparents, and called my fiance. We all watched as the two towers burned, as people had to choose between jumping out windows and burning alive. We watched as the first tower fell. I knew in my gut the other was going as well. My aunts all called the family home to check in. Everyone walked around in a daze that Tuesday, and the national anger began a few days later. I learned the next day that some good friends of mine had been sightseeing in the twin towers just mere hours before the planes hit.
Few things shape our conscience as national tragedies. As we observe the anniversaries and build memorials for us and our children, we also need to tell our children how important events such as these were. The Challenger explosion and the Persian Gulf War may not be in your top three, but you have others that have shaped who you are. Our children will have their own. The kindergarteners now do not remember the twin towers falling-all they see are pictures in history books and the file footage on the news on anniversaries. But they will have the same reactions as we have to their own tragedies.
It's our job as parents and as teachers to help students understand the ramifications of events such as these and to let our children know it's okay to be angry-we all were after the attacks in New York and Washington-or sad as we were in 1986. These events show us who we are as Americans, and who we are as humans.