9/11 lessons in kindergarten

BY VICTORIA GRANTHAM  | Victoria Grantham Life Downtown In a post-9/11 world, with active shooter drills in schools and bag scans at theaters, the question of how much we should share with our kids comes up a lot. We live two blocks from the Twin Towers, turned Ground Zero, turned Freedom Tower/One World Trade Center, and we’ve been here for 15 years — witness to the transformation —  so sometimes the question literally seems like it’s looming.

I tend to err on the side of avoidance because my older son, 5, is quite sensitive. He absorbs what he hears, considers it, and is sometimes scared of it.

I learned this the hard way when, a couple years ago, I let him watch a canine adventure story. The movie was G, but there was a cat in it who kept chasing the dog hissing “kill, kill.” For a while my son avoided cats and images of cats —  today he’s wary of them.

He’s older now, but it’s evident that he still pays close attention. At Barnes & Noble recently, he saw a Smithsonian magazine with an image of the Titanic on it. I know it made an impression because he talked about it for weeks and he brings it up whenever we ride the ferry.

He started kindergarten in September. The adjustment seemed minor — no tears! Friday of the first week was 9/11. After school we picked both kids up and dropped them at my sister-in-law’s in New Jersey so we could attend a wedding.

We returned on Sunday in time for family dinner. During the meal, my sister-in-law said, “Do you know about 9/11?” I looked at her quizzically. Before I could respond, our five-year old said, “bad guys flew planes into the towers, people were trapped. They tried to escape, but the buildings collapsed and a lot of people died.” I was shocked. “The new tower that’s there has a spear that will skewer the bad guys if they try again.”

“What?” I said. “Where did you learn this?” my husband asked.

“In class,” our son replied.

“I thought maybe you knew,” my sister-in-law said. We didn’t.

I don’t know what I said after that, but it was something that betrayed my discomfort about why the school/teacher would broach this subject with kindergartners without alerting us. I know this because my sister-in-law, trained as a therapist, later coached me about getting my game face on and not inadvertently transmitting to my son that he did something wrong. Message received: working on it.

In the meantime, I wrote an email to the teacher conveying dismay. I said I understood the calculation that could’ve occurred — perhaps other children with older siblings or families with a different approach were informed and she thought it best to level the playing field, for example — but I said we wished we had at least been alerted so we could better support him at the right level. And frankly, so I could’ve been a better actress.

I explained that in addition to living in the neighborhood during 9/11, my husband made a career transition post-attack —  from marketing independent films to firefighting. So, needless to say, we were indelibly impacted by it, and perhaps we’re more adamant about shielding our children from it than others.

To her credit, the overworked teacher called and had a long conversation with me about it. She said the administrators told her to address 9/11 in terms of an anniversary, so she talked about happy anniversaries (her wedding) and sad ones and asked if anyone knew what happened on 9/11 years ago. She said she was surprised because some knew a lot. She said that she worked to focus the conversation on the helpers.

The fact that she took time with me made me feel better. I still don’t think she demonstrated the best judgment, but I understand she was directed to discuss it and also that maybe we’re more protective than most.

I now realize that the biggest issue for me is not my son learning about the fact that there’s evil in the world and that sometimes horrible things happen that we can’t control — I believe he knows this on some level already —  but rather that he’s growing up so fast. It’s clichéd, but true.

There’s a picture of the four of us together on his first day of school. I see his long legs, collared shirt and half smile— all faint outlines of what’s ahead. I’m proud of the thoughtful, sweet young boy he’s becoming, but I’m also struggling with saying goodbye to the baby that my firstborn once was. Say goodbye I must though, and hello to a new phase —  as he starts to navigate his own way in this beautiful, awful world of ours.

Victoria Grantham, a writer and communications professional, is raising her family in Tribeca.