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HUNTINGTON — When a defining moment in America’s history becomes a history book item, it’s up to those who lived through it to explain why that occurrence sits so heavy on the hearts of many.

Two decades after the United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, the memories remain fresh for those who lived through it, but the rising generation doesn’t have any personal emotional attachment to the date, as students in kindergarten through 12th grade were not alive to witness the tragedy and fallout that occurred.

Educators across the country are now tasked with teaching the history of 9/11 so that it lives on as more than just another chapter in a history book.

“For a lot of teachers, it becomes an epiphany when they realize that they are talking about something that feels like yesterday that these students have no knowledge of,” said Steve Freeman, chairman of the Huntington High School social studies department.

Amie Aya-Ay, who teaches middle school English at Our Lady of Fatima, took her students to the Healing Field at Spring Hill Cemetery on Friday morning, where they visited a memorial made of a steel beam that came from the rubble underneath the twin towers in New York City. It was there that they also heard from a first responder who was on scene that day, who provided a bit more context than the students had heard before.

“My understanding really increases as I get older because I’m more exposed to what actually happened and the feeling gets sadder and sadder and it gets really hard,” seventh-grader Ali Norris said.

Aya-ay noted the importance of allowing the students to learn more about that day in history, but also giving them the time and space to be able to process it.

“It’s important for our students to hear these things firsthand and to carry that and make a difference so that we have memories of those things,” Aya-ay said.

She gave the students an assignment, which tasked them with asking their parents, grandparents or even neighbors about what they remembered about Sept. 11, 2001, having lived through it.

Students then shared those conversations with their classmates. The feelings were largely the same — fear, confusion, worry, uncertainty, all reflected in the students’ tone when they talked about what others had to say.

It’s the first time some of them had jumped into learning more than surface-level knowledge of the terrorist attacks and how it shaped the country afterward. That knowledge base will grow every year, and eventually students who can grasp the severity of 9/11 will be able to learn more about how the country changed afterward.

That’s a major focus of Freeman’s Advanced Placement Government course at Huntington High, where he teaches a group of seniors who have a good knowledge base of 9/11 but might not be aware of how drastically it changed the country.

“They don’t understand that it was a defining moment. I can tell you exactly where I was at the moment I heard about 9/11. I was walking down the halls of Capital High School. That’s in my mind, and I believe that’s true of anyone that was alive at that point in time,” Freeman said. “My students have no context of that. They don’t have that generational defining moment, and so I want to talk about the contrast between the pre-9/11 and post-9/11 world.”

That opens up class discussions on government regulations, the United States’ involvement in the 20-year war on terrorism, and even a close look at conspiracy theories that students may have heard about.

“One of the themes early on in the AP Government course is the idea of security or order versus liberty and the balance that you have to maintain. We take a close look at the Patriot Act and the way the world changed and the contrast between security and fear and protection and the idea of liberty,” said Freeman.

Freeman and Aya-ay, while teaching different age groups, share a common goal: making sure that what happened 20 years ago on Sept. 11 isn’t easily forgotten.

“It’s important that we keep in our minds that events like this literally change the way people think and change the way people live, even if my students don’t know what all has changed,” Freeman said. “They live in a different world now than their parents and grandparents lived in.”

Luke Creasy is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @LukeCreasy or reach him by phone at 304-526-2800.

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