I Remember Where I Was When: On Collective Memories

Imagine yourself in your sixth grade classroom. The principal comes to the door and motions for your teacher to come out into the hall. In her absence, someone throws a crumpled piece of paper in your direction. You turn around to see a group of boys snickering at the back of the room, but you cannot determine which of them is the guilty party. You turn back around in your chair, determined to ignore them.

The snickers stop as the teacher walks back into the room. Her red, puffy eyes betray the tears she’s trying to hold back. A fresh one trickles down her face as she draws in a breath to compose herself. Then, she speaks.

“Class, I have something to tell you. President Kennedy has been shot.”

Fast forward about 20 years, and you have news to tell your fourth grader. You don’t think she knows yet because her school opted not to watch the televised event. You drive up to the church where you work part-time to finish up some odds and ends. Not thinking about the day’s events, you roll out the television cart and set it in the hall for the kids to watch while you work. There on the screen is the image of an explosion in the sky. You kneel down to tell your daughter the news.

“Honey, there was an accident today.”

Fifteen years later, and that fourth grader is working on her graduate degree. She doesn’t have classes that morning. In fact, classes have been canceled all day in honor of the inauguration of the university’s new president. She is not attending the event, though. She will use the day to take a much-needed break. She gets up to let the dog out and then goes into the living room to turn on the TV.

That’s when she sees smoke pouring out of a familiar building. It’s the building at which she gazed in awe on a trip to New York City when she was 17. She has a picture of it and its twin in a box somewhere. She tunes in to what the morning news personalities are saying. It seems a plane crashed into the building. She runs back to the bedroom to wake her husband.

“Honey, get up.”

(sleepily) “I’ll get up in a minute.”

“No, get up now. Something’s going on.”

Two generations before mine, President Roosevelt stood before Congress and named “a date which will live in infamy”. Though I have never heard them talk of the events that happened on that date, I’m sure my grandparents remember certain details about where they were and how they found out. Such details are the stuff of collective memory.

December 7, 1941. A teenager in the Midwest.

November 22, 1963. A girl in a classroom near Dallas.

January 28, 1986. A girl watching TV in a church hallway.

September 11, 2001. A graduate student tuning in to the morning news.

You won’t find their stories in a textbook. But they are an important part of our history. On each of these dates, something happened, and a generation reacted. On a national scale, we experienced shock, anger, and grief.

The week after the attacks on the twin towers, I stood before the class of college freshman I had been assigned as a TA and asked my students to write about what they remembered. Where were they when they learned the news? What were their impressions of what was happening? I didn’t take their papers up for a grade.

Ten years later, I don’t know where these students are or what happened to those lined sheets of paper on which they wrote out their memories. This week, I will face a new group of students. And as it happens every fall semester, the date of the attacks coincides with the “Writing from Experience” unit of my class. During this unit, we talk about memories. The kinds of things we remember from childhood, both good and bad, and the way we recall these memories. We focus on the details.

We share memories of national tragedies. They tell me what it was like to learn of the terrorist attacks as schoolchildren. I tell them how the Challenger disaster affected me as the 9-year-old daughter of a teacher. One semester, an older student who remembered the Kennedy assassination approached me after class. I will never forget his comment.

“I could tell these kids stories that would make their hair curl.”

I know that someday my daughters will come home with their history textbooks in hand, and they will be studying what I lived. Will they realize that the events they have to read and answer questions about were experienced by real people like their parents and grandparents? Will the collective memories of the generations matter to them?

Perhaps not. When catching a flight somewhere in the future, they won’t remember a time when family members could see each other off at the gate. They won’t notice the difference in security measures. They may have read that increased security was one of the effects of the attacks, but they probably won’t make the connection as they remove their shoes to walk through a scanner. Just like I don’t remember a time when Dallas or Pearl Harbor were not on the map.

Yet, at some point, the importance of collective memories will strike them as unforeseen events do. And as the stories of a previous generation are forgotten, my children will have their own to tell of who they were and how they became part of history.

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