Growing Up With Grief as a Post-9/11 Generation
September 10, 2021
Zayd Ali figures he was in 2nd grade when his parents told him. Jess Yang’s dad told her when she was 7. For Alexis Lewis, the news came later: her 6th grade history teacher broke the news. And Sarah Wong will always remember the day her 7th grade teacher rolled that big TV cart into her classroom and popped in a DVD.
“Then she turned off the lights and we watched,” Wong said. “I vividly remember watching the footage of people jumping from the top floors, looking at this horror of this burning building and watching people jump to their deaths rather than burn alive. That imagery really stuck with me.”
Today’s college students, a generation born from around 1999 to 2002, have no memory of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Many weren’t born yet; many others were infants or toddlers too small to understand. It’s a generation I know personally: I watched the horror from my apartment in Chicago, 6 months pregnant with my daughter, while my toddler watched the PBS cartoon “Clifford, the Big Red Dog.” My son loved airplanes – he still does – and I remember thinking I didn’t want him to know airplanes could do something so bad. Whenever he wandered off, I’d flip over to ABC News, praying he wouldn’t see.
Of course, he did see. Not then, maybe, but eventually. They all did. In ways they may not always be aware of, today’s college-age kids are a generation who grew up in a nation of adults racked with shock and grief. Post 9/11 trauma was in the air they breathed, like the dust that filled lower Manhattan on that tragic day.
Four million babies were born in the United States in 2001, the most religiously and ethnically diverse cohort in the nation’s history. It’s impossible, and unwise, to generalize about their views or their experiences. I spoke with four members of this cohort, all around the same age as my own children: Wong, now a senior at Oberlin College in Ohio; Ali, a freshman at Tulane University in New Orleans; Yang, a sophomore at Bowdoin College in Maine; and Lewis, a recent graduate of Spring Arbor University in Michigan. I also spoke with people who work with this generation – chaplains, rabbis, activists – and asked for their take on this young generation. The answers surprised me, saddened me, and gave me hope.
First off, they all learned about 9/11 in vastly different ways. Lisa Doi, a Japanese American activist who’s studying for a doctorate at Indiana University, was 10 years old when the attacks happened. She remembers how the world changed, remembers her parents taking her to a rally to support American Muslims in suburban Chicago. But when she taught school in New York City a few years ago, she faced a classroom of children with no memories of those early days.
“If you were to quiz these students on what happened on 9/11, they think they knew what happened, but nobody really explained it to them,” Doi said. “I had to think through, how do you teach this history to somebody who doesn’t really remember it?”
Yang remembers her 4th grade teacher at a private school in Southern California introducing the entire U.S. history social studies curriculum with a segment on 9/11. Before that, “I remember doing general memorial things on 9/11 anniversaries, but they didn’t explain what was going on. We were very young. We just knew it was a solemn kind of day. We’d do moments of silence and salute the American flag.”
Now, as a college sophomore, she grapples with the implications of that day and the American government’s response to the 9/11 attacks: entrenched military action overseas, for example, and surveillance of Muslim students and mosques at home. “So many things have come to light, really terrible things that the American government does,” Yang said. “It’s a tense spot. Where 9/11 is painted as this moment of uprising and collective patriotism and coming together as a nation…we don’t really emphasize that because we’re grappling with our views and our position of being American.”
Ask 19-year-old Zayd Ali about his thoughts on 9/11, and the conversation quickly turns to soccer. When he was in 8th grade, Ali started a nonprofit soccer program for refugee kids in the Washington, D.C., area. He was motivated in part by his Muslim faith, he told me. His parents raised him on Islamic teachings of compassion and love.
“Respond with kindness. Spread positivity any chance you can. Those are the main things Islam has taught me,” Ali said.
“I first learned about 9/11 from my parents,” he said. “I remember that one thing they said was, ‘These people were not Muslim.’ They wanted to make sure that narrative was ingrained in me from an early age.”
Ali also remembers feeling shocked when, later in elementary school, a classmate turned to him and said, “Dude, you know the people who did that were Muslim.” Ali was able to return to school and explain: “Technically (the attackers) called themselves Muslim, but the ethos around their lives did not reflect the core tenets of Islam.” For years, Ali said, “my parents came in to talk about Eid and Ramadan, and bring in moon and star cookies, because there was such a polarizing narrative between what (his non-Muslim classmates) heard and saw about Islam versus what the religion really stood for.”
As Ali and his family were educating his peers about their faith, across the country, Sarah Wong was growing up going to a Methodist church in East Los Angeles – a church that included many Asian Americans, including Japanese Americans incarcerated by the U.S. government during World War II. Those relationships made her family keenly aware of dangerous government policies that scapegoated an entire generation during a time of war.
Wong’s father, a Chinese American Christian, is the board chair of UMMA, a community health clinic founded in 1992 by Muslim students from UCLA and Charles Drew University, Wong said. “He got involved with them in the aftermath of 9/11. He knew that this was going to change the way the United States saw this community, and he wanted to lift them up.”
Thanks to her father’s work, by the time Wong found herself sitting in the dark in her 7th grade classroom, watching the horrifying images of 9/11 for the first time, she’d already formed deep, positive relationships with Muslims in her community. It helped her process the moment in a different way, she said. “First and foremost, whenever I engage with people about 9/11, I always think of the American Muslim community first.”
Alexis Harris grew up going to a Baptist church in the Detroit area and graduated from Spring Arbor University in May with a degree in criminology. She works for a nonprofit called Rise Above, which mentors teenagers struggling with school. She learned about 9/11 from her 6th grade history teacher. “I got obsessed,” she remembers. “I was watching all sort of YouTube videos.”
Harris said the recent events in Afghanistan have brought the 9/11 attacks back into focus. “It’s on everybody’s mind right now,” she said. “This has been 20 years. That’s crazy. And now the troops are leaving. I have a lot of people who served in my family. It happy but it’s also sad because things went bad really fast.”
Sadness and grief – these are words that come up a lot when you speak to college students today. As Wong, the Oberlin senior puts it, when they think about 9/11, “It’s not just an American tragedy. The repercussions of it have become a global tragedy in the ways things have played out in the years since. I just feel this immense sadness.”
And it’s not just 9/11. Kalilah Jamall, a specialist in the Interfaith Office at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, works with students who have grown up inundated with traumatic stories and images: Sandy Hook; George Floyd; suffering in Palestine and Afghanistan; deaths caused by COVID-19; the list goes on. Yet, she’s seen these same students show tremendous courage, curiosity, and empathy in the face of these traumas.
Josh Stanton, a rabbi in New York City, sees this too. In a generation growing up in a polarized nation that’s burdened by unresolved grief, he has seen young people move through this world with flexibility, empathy, and nuance. “It’s an incredible thing to behold,” he said. “When you hear people from Gen Z describing who they are, they describe themselves in a multitude of identities. And there’s space for all of them.”
19-year-old Jess Yang says her own activism covers a broad spectrum: Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ movements, efforts to stop anti-Asian hate and sexual assault of women. 9/11 is “one factor in a lot of colliding factors that have made this generation so anxious. We’re all just generally grieving all the time about nothing and everything.”
Yang added, “I also think that with that, it’s clear that this generation is the most collectively active and collectively socially conscious and empathetic.”
My son and Yang are schoolmates, and as tomorrow’s anniversary approaches, I can’t help but think about that heartbreaking day, 20 years ago, when I stood there, a pregnant mom, trying to shield a toddler from sadness and pain. My son, the airplane lover, knows how to fly airplanes himself now. He knows, keenly, that airplanes can do bad things, and that whether they do or not depends on humans, not machines: good pilots with good judgment and good hearts. Last summer, I went up with him for the first time. As the wheels lifted off the runway and the Cessna nosed up into the bright blue sky, all I felt was joy.
American Civic Life