As nation mourns 9/11, Eastern Iowa high school freshmen learn

The 2001 terror attacks happened before most of them were born

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This year’s high school freshmen are the first to learn about the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as historic events that happened before they were born.

Eastern Iowa teachers and parents are using personal stories, video and news accounts, textbooks and even a graphic novel to help teenagers understand the impact of the terrorist attacks 15 years ago that killed nearly 3,000 people and made Americans feel vulnerable in a way rarely felt before.

“I was kind of born on a terrible day in history,” said Trey Shalla, a freshman at Lone Tree High School who was born at 12:42 p.m. Sept. 11, 2001, at Mercy Iowa City. “But good things can happen on a bad day.”

Trey, who turns 15 visited the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City last summer. He was struck by what unfolded just hours before he came into the world.

8:46 a.m.: Hijackers crash Flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

9:03 a.m.: Hijackers hit the south tower with Flight 175.

9:37 a.m.: Flight 77 hits the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

9:59 a.m.: The World Trade Center south tower collapses.

10:07 a.m.: Passengers and crew on hijacked Flight 93 try to retake the plane. Hijackers crash into a field in Somerset County, Penn.

10:28 a.m.: The World Trade Center’s north tower collapses.

Trey’s mother, Amy Shalla, remembers everything about that day.

“Trey’s dad was flipping through the channels in the hospital and he hit a station that showed the twin towers being run into and I thought it was a movie,” she said. “The doctors asked if they could have the TV on and I said ‘yes’. So we watched this while I was in labor.”

Later, after Trey was born, nuns and priests stopped by the hospital room to bless to the newborn — something that hadn’t happened for her two other sons born at Mercy, Shalla said.

Sept. 11 coverage also was the soundtrack for Abby Brunssen’s birth at 7:49 p.m. Sept. 11, 2001, at UnityPoint-St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids. Her parents, Cathy and Darin Brunssen of Atkins, had a hard time making celebratory phone calls because lines were busy with callers talking about the attacks.

“I remember looking out at HandiMart across the street, seeing people lining up to get gas,” Cathy Brunssen said.

The Brunssens’ baby is now a 5-foot-11 blocker on the Benton Community volleyball team. Abby, a freshman, doesn’t really think about Sept 11 much and, typical for a teenager, isn’t super excited to discuss it with a stranger.

“People talk about it with me a lot, but I don’t remember it,” she said, with the unspoken word being “obviously.”

But on Monday. Abby and her American History classmates will be talking about the attacks.

Benton Community teacher Tony Stenberg plans to screen a 15-minute “Good Morning America” video from that day, showing the progression from breezy talk show to horror.

“It starts out with the kids laughing at the commercials and the types of clothes the reporters are wearing,” said Stenberg, who has shown the recording before. “Then they cut to the 9/11 attack. It’s an eerie feeling when they (students) realize what it is.”

Stenberg, 25, also plans to share his own Sept. 11 story. He was a fifth-grader at Cedar Rapids Coolidge Elementary and remembers teachers whispering in the hallways and parents taking kids out of school for fear of more attacks.

Personal stories from teachers and parents — for whom that Sept. 11 seems like yesterday — contextualize the event for teens who see it as ancient history, said Sean Neilly, a Kennedy High School history teacher and social studies facilitator for the Cedar Rapids district.

“It helps you slip into someone else’s shoes,” said Neilly, who turns 42 Sunday.

Cedar Rapids students learn about the attacks in several courses, including American history, government and advanced placement world history, Neilly said. Some textbooks, covering centuries of American history touch only briefly on Sept. 11 as part of a conversation of global terrorism.

But Neilly likes a graphic novel based on the final report of the 9/11 Commission, a group charged with examining the facts that led up to the attacks and making recommendations. “The 9/11 Report a Graphic Adaptation” turns the actual report — a 2004 tome of nearly 600 pages — into a riveting 130-page timeline with cartoon illustrations.

“It’s an incredible resource,” Neilly said. His AP world history students dig into the book after they’ve taken their AP test for the year.

That the nation was strong enough to bear the attacks and keep functioning gives Dann Coffey of Iowa City feelings of pride and gratitude. His son, Kieran, was born without incident at 10 p.m. that day at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

“By 10 p.m., everyone was talking doom and gloom, but I’m thinking ‘life goes on,’” he said. “The United States didn’t skip a beat.”

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