They are part of a generation that has never known a time when airline passengers could bring baseball bats and knitting needles aboard a flight or soldiers weren’t deployed overseas in a time of war.
Now almost two decades since Sept. 11, 2001, today’s high school seniors say they’ve seen video of the planes striking the World Trade Center and the towers falling so many times that it’s like they remember the attacks in real time.
“I’m 18 years old, and I still don’t understand how a human being could hurt that many human beings and not be affected by it whatsoever,” said Kayleigh Cloncs, who plans to join the Air Force and study nursing on the post-9/11 GI bill.
During the attacks, students and teachers watched the live coverage on television as schools went on soft lockdown. The evening’s sporting events were cancelled.
Teachers now show documentaries and talk about their own memories to explain the attacks in lessons. Firsthand accounts, like the tweets from President George W. Bush’s press secretary reliving the White House response, help students comprehend the scale of the tragedy, educators say.
“Not only do I want my students to ‘see’ what happened, I want them to feel it and be moved by it,” Southmont High School social studies teacher Reasley Thompson, sponsor of the senior class, said.
Jamie Freeman got a sense of the grief when his family visited the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum at the trade center site. The Ground Zero cross, a formation of debris that was found in the rubble, rose from the floor as they listened to recordings of phone calls and read newspaper accounts of the attacks.
“You can actually tell something was wrong and something happened that we needed to remember,” Freeman recalled thinking.
At the site where passengers brought down their hijacked plane near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, Sophie Reimondo met two women whose children were aboard the flight.
She also toured the Sept. 11 exhibit at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., which displays newspaper front pages and the remains of a television antenna destroyed when the towers collapsed.
“Literally the whole world was watching at that time,” Reimondo said.
As the attacks unfolded in New York, Jake Bevin’s uncle, who serves in the military, was at work in the Pentagon. He got called away for a meeting just before the plane slammed into his office wing.
“If he hadn’t been called away, he would have been killed, like, it’s no doubt,” Bevin said.
Like other people his age, the 17-year-old wonders what steps could have been taken to prevent the attacks. Were any clues missed?
The attacks happened six days before Elizabeth Truncone was born, framing the stories her mother tells about the fear that gripped the nation. “Things were always related back to 9/11 and the feelings she had right before she had me,” Truncone said.
“I didn’t understand why someone would want to go into a country and kill so many people. I didn’t have a grasp on like, how there could ever be a reason for that,” she added. “But … as I got older, I started to realize that sometimes there’s bad people in the world and they’re going to do things that you might not understand, but you just have to take precautions to be able to, like, deal with those situations.”
The lasting effects of the attacks — such as the additional layers of security at airports and schools — has created a more cautious generation of teens bearing the double burden of coming of age in an era of mass shootings.
“We’re seniors getting ready to start our lives and we don’t know if we’ll live to see our college graduation,” Cloncs said.
Cloncs and her classmate, Suzi Pedro, who also plans to join the Air Force to begin a career in law enforcement, say their parents are uneasy about them going into the military.
“I was always get that question, ‘Are you afraid? Doesn’t that scare the crap out of you that you’re doing this?’” Pedro said. “And it’s like, I guess, I don’t take being … fearful for granted, but I feel like it’s taught me not to live my everyday life in fear.”