For the first few years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Indiana history teacher Bob DeRuntz did not cover them in his high school classes. The experience of watching the Twin Towers fall on television was still near for students as well as staff.
“I simply didn't teach 9/11 because we all lived it together,” DeRuntz recalled.
As the years passed, however, the students who entered his classes at Chesterton High School no longer had vivid memories of the attacks. Now, DeRuntz dedicates time to help students understand the visceral trauma of that day — and how it shaped U.S. policies for years.
WFYI education reporter Dylan Peers McCoy spoke to DeRuntz, a finalist for Indiana Teacher of the Year, about how he teaches 9/11 to students who were born years after the attacks. A lightly edited and condensed version of their conversation is below.
Dylan Peers McCoy: Let's go all the way back to 9/11. What was that day like for you as a teacher?
Bob DeRuntz: That day started that morning when a teacher who teaches next to me stuck her head in the classroom, and she told me to turn on the television. I turned on the TV and, we all saw one of the Twin Towers was already a raging inferno. One of the planes had already struck. Much like everybody else in the country, we didn't know if it was an accident. And then we all watched together live as that second plane flew into the second tower. And it was one of those days, you know. I didn't teach another thing all day. We thought about sending the students home. But for the young kids, there was nobody home there to receive them. So students stayed in school and all day, I didn't teach another thing as they went from class to class. And we watched.
Dylan Peers McCoy: How did you discuss 9/11 in your history class in the years immediately after the attack? Is it something that you taught?
Bob DeRuntz: You know, for years, I didn't. I simply didn't teach 9/11 because we all lived it together. But I came to realize at one point that my students were too young. After years — four or five, six years — went by I began to realize that they were in elementary school when 9/11 happened. And they certainly weren't sitting in third or fourth grade watching this live on TV. Now I get to this point, my students weren't even alive on 9/11. So as we watch the events unfold in Afghanistan and our withdrawal from Afghanistan, they don't have those connections as to why we went into Afghanistan because of 9/11.
Dylan Peers McCoy: Flight 93 was hijacked on 9/11. And after passengers attempted to regain control of it, it crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. One of those passengers was Todd Beamer, who was on the phone and his last recorded words were 'let's roll.' You mentioned you have a plaque of those words on your wall. Do they have significance for your students?
Bob DeRuntz: I have a great deal of historical memorabilia in my classroom. It's a rather small American flag that's framed with the words 'let's roll' on it. And I had a student come to class and pointed at the wall and asked me about those words. 'Let's roll.' And I remember standing there sort of stunned that he didn't know what that was in reference to. You know, so many people go to Todd Beamer’s name at the memorial because they associate him with those events of the day. And when I realized that my students don't even recognize his name, let alone that term, I knew that I needed to go into great — a much greater deal of detail about 9/11 in my classes.
In my class now, I spend two days teaching it and discussing it. And I show a video from National Geographic called "Zero Hour." And it breaks 9/11 down almost by the minute in some cases. And it's very graphic. It's very real. It's very raw. And the kids see things they've never seen before. But you can't understand and appreciate the pain of 9/11 unless you relive it in a way.
Dylan Peers McCoy: Why is it important for students now to understand the emotional experience of going through 9/11?
Bob DeRuntz: Because they have to understand the emotional connection that Americans have with that day. Because be it the invasion of Afghanistan, or the Patriot Act or the TSA and the extent to what we have to do when we take a flight today — to you know, tenuous connections for the justification of the invasion of Iraq. None of this makes any sense unless you know why Americans were in such a painful place where that fear of 9/11 turned into rage for vengeance afterwards. You can't understand any of that unless you have that emotional connection with that awful day.