When I first began teaching psychology back in the mid-70s, it was easy to pick an example of a “flashbulb memory,” or one that is especially vivid for whole groups of people. For those of us alive at that time, news of the assassination of John F. Kennedy was the obvious choice. I was in the 6th grade when Kennedy was shot, and had returned to my classroom to retrieve my tennis racket for a noontime league game. I was shocked to see my teacher, Mrs. Calverly, crying at her desk. When I asked her why she was crying, she said, “The President has been shot.” I remember little else from the 6th grade, but I remember that day.
It has been many years since that example needed replacement in the classroom. The Challenger explosion and hearing the results of the O.J. Simpson trial worked for some years. But these are far overshadowed by 9-11. Few of us will have any difficulty recalling where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the awful news. What was first so bizarre as to seem unbelievable shifted into a hideous and all-too-real certainty. Some of the memories were more personal–losing real people that you knew, like the bond trader who followed my daughter’s track and field career with such support and enthusiasm. You think of the what-ifs. Years before, Mr. F worked in the World Trade Center while training for his license as a stock broker. Then the individual stories come out–the little 4 year old girl on her way to her first trip to Disneyland, the fathers, daughters, wives, husbands, mothers, sons–important people in so many lives snuffed out for what?
Now as the new school year is about to begin, it occurs to me that my incoming freshmen were pretty young in 2001. In fact, they were only 11 years old. What did 9-11 mean to 11-year-olds?
How long will it be before I can’t use 9-11 as an example of a flashbulb memory? Five years? More? Less?
I recall my parents’ almost reverential recalling of Pearl Harbor Day, and although we recognized the historical importance of the event, it seemed somewhat disconnected from our own reality. I suppose at some point, 9-11 will be the same for American youth. How will we be able to communicate the meaningfulness of this experience?
This year, as in the past several, Mr. F and I will be remembering 9-11 by joining a local “Support the Troops” barbecue kindly organized by Matt Kokkonen. It’s the least we can do, and I wish we could do more.