"Never Forget" Takes Work


I was correcting papers last night and came across a surprising error. As a college-level writing instructor, I am used to seeing atrocious spelling, complete lack of respect of (if not complete lack of understanding of) the rules of grammar, muddled thinking, mixed metaphors, lack of acknowledgment of sources, and a general sense of apathy toward writing and communicating itself. I won't need this! I am going into business! I am going to be doctor--I won't need to write! Ah, my little grasshoppers, you have so much to learn.

The moment of which I speak--when I actually spit my tea out and gasped for breath in surprise--came when I read one student's essay on the iconic image of the flag raising at Iwo Jima. (Context: I had assigned a paper in which they would analyze the rhetorical implications of an image).  For the entirety of his essay, the student went on to discuss how the image showed the pride Americans felt after winning in battle during Vietnam.

Yes. You read that correctly. He said Vietnam.

That's what I thought, too.

You can start breathing now.

I sat there steaming in red-hot anger. (I don't know why I always take another's ignorance as a personal affront. But, I do. It's an issue and I am working on it). Needless to say, I said to myself: How in the hell did you get to be 18 years old in this country and get into college and think that 1) Iwo Jima occurred in Vietnam (wrong country, wrong war) and that the U.S. claimed victory in Vietnam? 

I calmed down. I took out my red pen, circled VIETNAM, and simply noted in the margins: "Wrong country. Wrong war. Please look up!"

Yes, I decided I am going to make him do the work. Because, work it is.

Remembering takes work.

A few minutes later, I packed my papers away and flipped on the news. I was instantly bombarded with images of 9/11 . Like it is for millions of people, it's difficult to watch. Difficult to remember. Still after all these years, I find it utterly unfathomable to wrap my head around, to understand, to grasp what happened that day and every single day thereafter. Every time I reach for meaning or purpose, my hands come up empty. My heart aches. I can't quite articulate how much I lost that day--how much we all lost that day.

Though it has been 13 years, I remember in detail what my then 2-year-old daughter wore to daycare that morning--overalls and a black turtleneck with white rosebuds on it. I dropped her off at her school on a crystal clear, beautiful September morning and picked her up  hours later under a sky being scanned by military aircraft--the sounds of sirens blazing as our Connecticut town's police and fire forces responded to new terrorist threats and were busy sending out available units to what hadn't yet been called Ground Zero, but rather, the Twin Towers. There was no 9/11 yet. No Ground Zero. There was just an obliterated city. A million unknowns. The name Osama Bin Laden hadn't yet been spoken. There were just families frantically searching for loved ones; calling into voicemail boxes with no answer. We were a country briefly united and scrambling to understand as the world transformed right before our eyes.

In my own family, my brother was waiting to hear his wife's voice on the phone. Had she made it out of the subway? Did she make it to work yet? Was she there? Was she OK. (She was.) In the moments it happened, there were other frantic phone calls: Where are Sean, Tara, our brother-in-law, Patrick?  Those memories are burned into our subconscious. For any of us who lived through it, we know. We remember.

Today my daughter woke up and flipped on the news. She sat quietly and solemnly looking at the footage. She's almost 15 now. She doesn't remember that day or what she wore or that my parents and I sat and cried as we watched the news that night. She doesn't remember how she wiped my tear off my cheek and held my face and said, "Sad?" And I nodded, "Yes, I am sad. It is a great sadness."

We talked about those memories this morning on the way to school. This was my time to tell her. To share with her what I remember. To share with her why this day, and so many days like it that came before--the Iwo Jimas, the Pearl Harbors, and so many others--matter. I remember my parents remembering JFK's assassination. Every November my dad would tell us where he was, who he was with, what he felt like. As a child hearing this story, it seemed like a million years ago. But, I see now, how fresh it was for him. Just as 9/11 is fresh for me, for all of us who remember. JFK was assassinated 13 years before I was born. Just 13 years. But as a child, I thought it might as well have been a century ago. And I realize that's how my kids feel today about 9/11. My youngest is only 8. He has never known a world without war, without terrorism.

So this morning when he woke, of course, 9/11 was not top of mind. As it is for most kids born after that day, it meant nothing to him. It was for him another newscast of a building exploding and on fire. For all he knew it happened yesterday. And I thought to myself: This is how it happens. This is how we forget. This is how an 18-year-old can go off to college and not know about Iwo Jima or Vietnam. In 10 years, when my son goes off to college, will he confuse 9/11 for something else? God, I hope not.

Because, I won't let that happen. It's my job to remember. To remind. To teach. When the questions come, I will answer. When the time comes, I will explain.

"Colm, remember when we went to New York to visit Uncle Sean? Remember, when mom and dad held you next to the giant fountains? And you touched the names of the heroes that died trying to help others get out of the fire? Those fountains were where those giant buildings once stood and where thousands of people worked and then died. It was a great sadness. And we'll always remember. It's our job to never forget."