When I wrote today's date on the board before class this afternoon, I paused for a minute.
Tuesday, September 11th.
The terrorist attacks in New York City that took place in 2001 also fell on a Tuesday. I remember fairly clearly where I was that morning. Getting ready for school, eating breakfast. In California, due to the time zone difference, by the time I had woken up, images of the burning Twin Towers were already all over the news. My parents were downstairs in the den, standing in front of the TV and watching silently. I didn't think much of it. I went to school. Before the morning was over, though, an announcement was made over the PA system, informing everyone of the national emergency. We watched the news again in my classroom. After that, I don't remember much else. I was in sixth grade.
Back in my classroom, today, I couldn't write the year at the end of the date, because all of a sudden, "2012" just seemed preposterous. How could the 9/11 attacks have taken place eleven years ago? It was unfathomable. I wondered if my students, equivalent in age to American high school sophomores and juniors, had any idea of the significance of today's date. I really doubted it. (I mean, would I expect American high school students to be able to name even one Korean holiday, for example? Much less the commemorative dates of any national tragedies. I don't know any myself...)
But I thought I'd ask, anyway. Just to the one class I was teaching this afternoon.
"Today is September 11th. Does anyone know why today is important to Americans?"
Blank looks for a couple seconds. And then a student in the back said, "Thanksgiving?"
I have to admit that his response made me laugh. A couple of the quicker ones made the connection soon after and suddenly everyone was throwing out the routine one-word answers: "Terror!", "Newyork!", "Airplane!", "Twin Building!", "And... Boom."
My students were apparently amused at their own inability to formulate a coherent sentence explaining what happened on September 11th, and when they resorted to miming, everyone was laughing. Again, I'll admit that it was funny! But perhaps it was actually more preposterous than funny, and maybe my own laughter was born of discomfort more than anything else. Sans context, any American might have been horrified had they walked into my classroom at that moment.
I didn't expect my students to know about today's significance, really, but their efforts to communicate an idea they probably do not really grasp -- terrorism -- and the consequent humor showed me, in a way, how time is washing so much away. An event that permanently altered the American mindset and colored every back-to-school season of my teenage years means little to nothing to my Korean students eleven years later. And why should it? When it comes down to it, how much does 9/11 mean to me, eleven years later? I don't really know or want to answer that question.
I allowed myself to be slightly unsettled, and then moved on to today's lesson on pipe dreams.
It has dawned on me that I'm very, very far from America right now.
P.S. When you think about it, "Thanksgiving" isn't a completely arbitrary response. Korean Thanksgiving, called Chuseok, is coming up at the end of this month. Korean students are aware that Korean and American Thanksgivings take place around the same time -- in the same season, at least.