A defining experience for a young generation

Identity: The attacks of Sept. 11 are expected to shape lives much as Pearl Harbor and Vietnam did.

2001 9/11 2002

One Year

September 06, 2002|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Eighteen teens sit at their desks in full first-day-of-school awkwardness: Eyes are wandering, hands fidgeting, yawns are being stifled.

Within minutes, the classroom at Notre Dame Preparatory School electrifies, backs straighten to attention, voices rise and everyone wants to be heard. The subject is Sept. 11, and opinions are flying. Teacher Ann Klaes explains how the assassination of President John F. Kennedy had much the same riveting effect on her when she was in high school.

"The assassination defined your generation, and this is what is defining ours," says Megan Isennock, a 17-year-old senior at the Catholic girls school in Towson.

All her classmates agree, including 17-year-old Zab Brotzman, who adds this prediction: "It's our reaction to the day rather than the day itself that will probably define our generation."

A few miles away on the campus of Goucher College, the students are a couple of years older, but the mood is much the same. In Peace Studies 110, Assistant Professor Seble Dawit has never seen her college students more engaged in world events - or so eager to express their opinions.

"A year ago, we felt insulated. We were the country that bombed other people. Now it's come here. It's scary," says Allegra Johnson, a junior.

Goucher President Sanford J. Ungar sees the lingering impact of Sept. 11 on young people every day. In ways that are not always obvious, he says, his 1,150 undergraduates have changed their outlook, their sense of priorities, their world view. Not a day, not even a class, goes by in which Sept. 11 or related events aren't debated - sometimes casually, often passionately.

"There is no escaping it," Ungar says. "What's evolved is simply a more nuanced discussion, a long-term conversation. They have moved to introspection. They are learning things they didn't know they needed to learn a year ago."

Flashbulb memory

For Americans ages 13 to 30, the terrorist attacks and this country's response to them have been more than life-altering; they may prove life-defining. Just as their parents were shaped by the Vietnam War and Watergate, their grandparents by World War II or the Great Depression, they are beginning to sense how events have left a mark on their identity.

At an age when most people stitch together their fundamental political and cultural beliefs, these young men and women are dealing with something far more momentous than most had ever contemplated.

Before, they were seen as an ill-defined, frivolous, video-game-playing, Internet-chatting generation. Today, they are Generation 9/11, and exactly what that title means is only gradually coming into focus.

"My students had always felt quite deprived because they didn't have any generational identity," says William M. Tuttle Jr., a professor of American studies at the University of Kansas and author of Daddy's Gone to War: The Second World War in the Lives of America's Children. "Now they can say they really have one. They are learning what it is to grow up in a time of crisis."

Sociologists coined the term "flashbulb memory" to describe an experience so powerful that its imprint lasts forever. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy and the attack on Pearl Harbor are examples: People commonly remember where they were and what they were doing the moment they became aware of what had happened.

The events of Sept. 11 were as forceful, amplified by television and its graphic footage of planes crashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the deadly aftermath.

Young people had few comparable moments before then. The Challenger disaster of 1986, when schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe and six others astronauts died in an exploding space shuttle, came closest - particularly for children who watched the event live in their classrooms.

Immediately after the terrorist attacks, when the dust had barely settled, there was fear and anxiety, dread and uncertainty, particularly for those closest to where they occurred. It was not uncommon for young people whose only connection to the event was through TV to feel threatened and depressed, says John T. Walkup, a child psychiatrist and researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Rob Porter, a 19-year-old sophomore at Loyola College in Baltimore, remembers the days and weeks on campus after Sept. 11 when he and his fellow students seemed to draw closer together, dropping into dorm rooms to hang out and talk.

He remembers, too, the intense patriotism, which has gradually faded, leaving more a sense of uncertainty about the future than anything else.

"We think we might have made our sacrifice that day, but we haven't," says Porter, of Clarks Summit, Pa. "The future makes me nervous. It reminds me of the fall of the Roman Empire, where it wasn't a powerful rival empire but an inability to deal with how the world had evolved."

Turning points

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