Today is 22 years since I worked as a commodity trader at the World Trade Center. On that day I ran as the buildings crumbled; now I stumble along with the rest of the country as we still dig ourselves out from the mental rubble from that disaster.
I have been a high school teacher in the Twin Cities for the past 17 years. As has been my custom, I share my story about 9/11. I tell my students about my day, from waking up, dropping my son off to school, till coming to pick him up with shock in my eyes and a sense of helplessness in my heart.
I will try to explain the invisible cicatrix on my soul and on our country that was left that day.
I sat with my son recently, and he recounted that day to me. It was a fractured recollection. He remembers me picking him up and being confused as to why I was there.
My son was 12 when this happened, about to have his bar mitzvah in a few weeks. I remember telling him I wished I could have given him a better September.
I looked at him now, 34 years old, sitting with his wife and my two small grandchildren. But as he talked, it struck me. I am not going to talk to my students about 9/11 as a day in America.
Two decades have passed. Today’s students are a new generation delivered from the ashes and debris of the fallen Twin Towers. We need to stop examining our country in an anodyne way.
Instead, I am going to ask my students to examine (to imagine) their lives from the future, not the past.
We can shape the future. Removing the past, being offended by the past is too easy. It is not doing the heavy lifting. Removing a rock from a Wisconsin campus because of a racial slur one person wrote over 100 years ago does nothing to make the world better for today. It’s guilt-ridden, pseudo, safe activism by white people and a performance piece by people of color.
We all need to do the heavy lifting. For homework I will ask them to write down:
Who will they blame for the race divide in the year 2030? Who will they blame for the climate damage in 2030? Who will they blame for the income disparity in 2030? Who will they blame?
That’s what politics in our country have become: blame and shame. It’s becoming a distraction.
Our students need to learn that blaming someone or some system is not the solution. It’s jejune to think so. It’s how we evoke change in the system’s problems in our life that matters.
There will always be more rocks to move than we have time for. But we do have time for the real solutions to those rocks? The real solutions require hard work. You can’t wish for change. A wish is nothing more than a dream without the work.
We must not allow ourselves to be distracted from social change. We must not allow the pettiness of politics, nor the grandeur of promises to slow us down. They are diversions to the real mission-future change.
Sept. 11, 2001, created a change in how we saw the world and how we acted for the past two generations. We need to move past that outdated model.
My students, this generation spawned from the despair of 9/11, need to provide the solutions, not dig up the past. The future is changeable. We need to get beyond anger and provide solutions. Ideas are not enough; it’s action that matters.
You remove a rock, you feel better, but nothing has changed. It’s a systemic change we need to spend our time on. It’s too easy to blame our ills on race. Systemic change happens when all races stand shoulder to shoulder and when humanity is valued without animus.
Why can’t we disagree and just remove the all or nothing labels the political parties cast on us? I am tired of not being called a Democrat because I’m not all in on all the party’s beliefs. Humans are not infallible. I don’t have to experience a heart attack to feel empathy for those who have. Replace wokeness with compassion. Intolerance extends beyond race. Intolerance is rampant with speech and dialogue and differences. How about we cancel the cancel culture.
A friend asked me if I had any regrets in my life. I said I didn’t have time for regrets. On reflection, maybe I regret not making more mistakes.
I will ask my students what they want their legacy to be. You can’t always be on the right side of history as it is happening, but you can leave space for change.
Our students do not need to stand for the past. They need to be a lightning rod, not the seismograph. They need to rise up for the future.
As adults, we need to stand back and get out of their way.
Ira Sanders has been a teacher at Roseville Area High School for the past 17 years.