Talking to My Son About the 9/11 Attacks

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On September 11, 2010, we were in Hampshire, England, to attend an arbitration conference for my husband. We only had the older children with us. My son was five years old and was in Year 1 (first grade) at his London school. Our eldest daughter had just turned four. Jim was downstairs doing the cocktail network circuit. I was attending to the children’s dinner before the sitter arrived. Cool mom that I sometimes can be, I had allowed them room service pizza and a movie in bed. It was a hotel, with kiddy robes, and mom was letting them watch TV. They were happy.

While they watched and ate, I started to get lost in my laptop. On the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, we seemed to be allowed to look at the images again. If readers recall, and I’m sure most do, the day and the days after were full of the images. But by the first anniversary, media was trying to make the public less angry. They stopped using the images. That trend continued for years. Commemorate, but don’t really remember. Don’t feel. Too many triggers.

While I can no longer recall the specific examples illustrating the change, year nine seemed different. Or maybe it was year eight when people got fed up with forced forgetfulness and I knew the coverage would be better this year. Whichever, I got lost in reading that evening. We were allowed to remember.

At some point, Patrick, my 5 year old, got out of the bed. He stood behind me. I didn’t think much of it.

The year before, Reception (Kindergarten), he had not learned to read. He was doing just enough sight words and sounding out that his teacher and I chose not to worry. She was an experienced teacher. She suspected that he was just one of those boys—usually it is a boy—who would read late. She told me that if she was right, then his reading mastery might happen very quickly. I told her that is exactly what had happened with his verbal skills. At 18 months he had just the number of words that his pediatrician didn’t worry, but told me to watch. By 22 months he started talking. By 25 months, he was into paragraphs and on his way to oration. And oh boy, is he verbal now.

But back in 2010, for his reading the teachers and Jim and I tried not to worry. School had started a few weeks prior, and while most of his friends were moving on to chapter books, he was still struggling with Ladybird readers. (Dick and Jane kind of books.)

Until that September 11th evening. As I read—maybe Foreign Policy or TIME, although back then it could’ve been Newsweek; the background was red but it wasn’t Instapundit—he was reading over my shoulder. I thought he was just waiting patiently to ask a question. After a few minutes of making him wait—working on his patience threshold, because that's what moms do—I turned to him. He was ashen. He was shaking. I jumped up thinking he was sick. Then he asked, “What’s a t-err-o-rist? Where are those buildings that they knocked down today?” I’d been in the middle of the page. Without the introduction, he thought the attacks had just happened.

While I could reassure him this hadn’t just happened, I wasn’t prepared to answer his questions yet. I recall a conversation with myself, "When did he learn to read?" And then another instant of, “Isn’t the sex talk supposed to come first?!” before I rallied. I had assumed I would have more time before we had to have "the talk" about terrorism. I’d naively thought that I’d be able to control when and how he learned some things. But once he could read, that control was gone.