Sophie and I love music. We’re always listening to different genres and artists – from country to classical – usually in the car. My inquisitive backseat driver has the habit of asking me, “What is she signing about?” Or “What does he mean when he sings that?” Or one of my personal favorites of late, “Who is Suzanne and why is he singing about her?” (referring to James Taylor’s Fire and Rain — I kid you not).

I do my best to answer Sophie and try to probe her mind by asking what she thinks or whether she thinks about people during songs. She’s an inquisitive kid and can usually tell if I’m trying to BS my way through an answer.

Four days ago, I was listening to one of my favorite song tributes to September 11, 2001, Alan Jackson’s Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning? And while this time I was alone in the car, I could hear in the back of my mind Sophie asking me, “What is that man signing about?”

It occurred to me I have no idea how I will answer Sophie when she asks that question (and I know she will one day ask). This got me thinking that when the time comes, how do I explain 9/11 to Sophie? Whether she is 5-years-old or 15, there’s no simple way to explain terrorism. How do you talk about hatred to a child whose idea of “hate” comes closest to disliking vegetables?

It’s a tough question since I still have a hard time comprehending what I witnessed 11 years ago. How do you explain a national tragedy to a child when you feel complete shock, awe and sadness thinking about an event that has changed lives forever?

I read a Facebook post recently that said today’s 5th and 6th graders have never known a pre-9/11 America. One mother said that trying to explain the event to her children was one of the hardest things she have ever had to do as a parent. It’s sad –  but a reality – that explaining that day is now a part of our parenting culture.

Perhaps the answer lies within the power of a song and its simple words. In his masterpiece, Alan Jackson never mentions 9/11, September, terrorism, hijacking, World Trade Center, airplanes, or Osama Bin Laden. Instead he describes the feeling as when the world stopped turning. He describes it as a time when people reexamined their lives to look for the good and not the bad; a time when communities came together and hung American flags in a show of commrodery and patriotism. A time when people felt scared and unsure about what the future will bring.

Maybe when I do get that question from Sophie, I’ll take a lesson from Alan’s words and describe it as a time when something bad happened to our country, and we all remember the day in our lives. That bad day made people scared, but it also helped people come together and appreciate their lives. Perhaps it would help this entire nation if we all remembered 9/11 in that same way, especially about how people came together in a world that will never be the same.

13 Responses

  1. Terrific post, Leah. Last year, when my daughter in law was pregnant and due around this time, I was nervous that the baby would have 9/11 for her birthday. She was born 9/10. I mentioned this to someone and they said, why does it mater, since 9/11 has no significance for her. Living a stone’s throw from NYC, losing a neighbor who left 3 children under 8, seeing all the local memorials and fire houses in NYC, it’s a day I’ll never forget.

  2. I was a private school teacher of multinational 7 and 8 year old children. As I headed to work that day I wasn’t sure which children knew and which ones didn’t. Most adults were riveted to the TV or radio and I figured the kids were bound to overhear. The school decided to operate as close to normal as possible and handle individual questions and concerns privately but we were not going to do a “special lesson” on it. I had heard that had occurred in many of the local schools. A few of the children didn’t come to school, a few had questions – none too hard to answer, but for the most part it was a regular day. It was our way of being that stable point in an unstable situation.

    It was hardest on me, keeping my attention focused and keeping upbeat even though I felt a sense of dread and felt out of contact with what was happening outside my classroom walls. I couldn’t wait to go home to find out what took place in the world while I was gone. I continued to work as the rescue operation advanced, the sadness from such loss of life mixed with the empathy of all the rescuers desperate to find someone alive – all masked behind a cheerful and interested teacher. Ironically, it was hearing about the courage of all the passengers from flight 93 which snapped me back – they took the world from a state of apathy and shock and gave them the will to stand tall and fight for their country’s freedom and safety.

    My students are now all young adults. I hope they have studied what happened on 9/11 in their higher grades or perhaps independently. It was a moment that tied the nation together for one brief moment – all petty differences were gone in an instant. Too bad it has to take extreme situations for us to act so compassionately towards others. I am going to remember 9/11 by being, kind, compassionate and helpful today… complaints – grateful to be alive.

  3. I’ve never heard the Alan Jackson song since country music is banned in our house (ha ha), though there is another song written in the same style, where the words Twin Towers, Pennsylvania, and DC never are mentioned, although the song is about 9/11. The Eagles wrote a song called “Hole in the World.” Some of the lyrics are “there’s a hole in the world tonight. There’s a cloud of fear and sorrow.”

    I’m just like Sophie – always wanting to know ‘what a song means.’ This sometimes drives my husband nuts because he’s more interested in the music. But for me, it’s always the story. Always.

  4. This is a beautiful piece Leah. That song has been in my head for the last few days now.

    I was just talking to my boss, who has three kids under 7, about how important it is to teach them about 9/11, but of course how he wants to wait until they are old enough to understand (as much as any of us “understand” that day) and discuss it. I’m not sure how long you can wait until questions begin in our culture.

  5. I think this is a great first answer. For so many topics, we’re advised to answer the questions children are actually asking. That would seem to apply here, as well. You can add more information as she’s ready for it, or as she encounters it.

  6. I absolutely love that song and have it on my Facebook page right now Leah. You always deal with Sophie in such an excellent way it makes me wish I had had your wisdom when my children were younger. Well done.

  7. You raise an excellent point and I have total confidence you will handle the situation with wonderful eloquence and poise, as always. Miss Sophie is blessed to have you as her Mommy, yes she is.


  8. Sophie is so astute! Gosh, I was in my kids’ elementary school at a PTA meeting when I heard about the horrible news. I was in shock that my children had to witness such a heinous act at such tender young ages.
    I like the way you focused on how it brought people together, Leah

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *