Experiencing the 9/11 Memorial

My Arts in NYC class was divided into weekly themes that contained two classes of instructional time and one class of an experiential component. I cannot over-emphasize how amazing the experiential component was to the integration of the course materials. The students got out and into spaces in the City that they had only previously visited on lame school field trips or never at all. Additionally, it allowed me time to walk and talk with them informally about class and life. The trips were structured so that they had a sheet to fill out that echoed the terms/ideas we had discussed in class that week, but they could move throughout the spaces however they liked. They then wrote about their experiences in a weekly Synthesis Essay and we discussed the trips each Monday for about 20 minutes to begin class.

It worked amazingly well.

One week we studied memorials. I need to further develop the content for this week, but our trip to the 9/11 Memorial was moving.I didn’t want them to go the Memorial with no purpose other than exploring it as a work of art/design. I wanted them to feel the human connection, to identify with the name of a person who had died on that day. I wanted to create an activity that would guide their visit.

Therefore, to prepare for the trip, I had them go to the 9/11 Memorial website name finder. Each student had to spend some time looking through the names. I suggested clicking around to find someone who resonated with them–maybe it was their name, age, or birthplace. They then wrote the name of a person on a piece of paper and passed it five times to the right (our class setup was a circle of tables). Next, I had them search for another name to keep for themselves. This way, each student was assigned two victims of the 9/11 attacks for our trip to the memorial.

For the trip, they were asked to write one victim’s name on each hand. We had talked a lot about memorial tattoos and how writing a person’s name on your body immortalizes them for as long as you are alive, granting them some sort of extension on life. I explained that I wanted them to do something similar for our trip–to immortalize these victims for a day. Some chose to write the names on top of their hands, others wrote them on their palms. I brought Sharpies to the trip and many helped each other out, writing names on each others’ hands. Once inside the Memorial, they had to find their victims’ names and photograph their hand next to their victim’s name. Like this:

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Despite the FREEZING temperatures that day, this guidance worked well.

For my person, I chose Giovanna Gambale. She has a special story in my 9/11 experience.giovanna flyer

On September 12th schools were closed, but we had to return to work on the 13th. As I exited the F train in Carroll Gardens (I would get off one stop early to get coffee), I saw my first missing person flyer. Flyers for the missing wallpapered the entire city, but this was the first one I saw. It was for Giovanna Gambale. I remember her shining face, red lipstick, blond flipped hair, and the overall brightness of her being like yesterday.  She seemed to radiate life from her flyer picture. Her flyer said she was 27 years old; I was 27 years old. She had brown highlighted hair; I had brown highlighted hair. She was 5’6″; I was 5’6″. I took all her details in, reading her as a mirror image of me. She worked on the 102nd Floor of the North Tower, and that’s where our similarities ended. I knew there was little chance she had made it out, and I stood there, frozen, knowing that I was looking at a photo of a person–a person very much like myself–who had just died. I saw her flyers each day on my commute to my high school in Cobble Hill, and then, that weekend at Union Square, I saw them again. It was as if she had traveled from Brooklyn to Manhattan, too. Her flyer has stayed with me. She is my 9/11 ghost. When I think of 9/11 I think of her.

I knew I needed to find her at the Memorial. I dug up a photo album of mine from the cellar; I had taken a photograph of her flyer at Union Square and it was tucked inside this album.  I found the photograph and looked her up her name.  When I got the memorial, I waited until the students didn’t need me anymore and sought out her name. It was there, punched into the steel that forms a shelf around the footprints of the fallen Towers.  I touched her name, outlined each letter with my fingers, photographed my hand next to it, and felt a surge of thankfulness for the last 12 years of my life that I have lived and she did not.

So strange that a young woman, whom I never met, is who I think of each year on 9/11, but it also makes total and complete sense. That’s what 9/11 did to us as a City; it brought us together and strange and unexpected ways.

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Each year after 9/11, we were mandated to teach a lesson about it in my high school. It was a natural day of reflection, a time to think about and process our experiences with the benefit of time. But as the years passed, 9/11 meant less and less to the students. For example, in talking about 9/11 just this January, in my Arts class, my students were mostly 6, 7, or 8 years old when it happened. They don’t know life before 9/11! Their knowledge of it comes from feature films and a twisted historical mythology. For me, 9/11 is one of those harsh punctuation marks of life; it clearly separates life into a BEFORE versus an AFTER. For my students, post-9/11 America simply IS their life. They know nothing else.

However, many of my students immigrated to the United States in high school, therefore they experienced 9/11 from the perspective of a child and from various countries around the world. I heard stories of reactions to 9/11 from Pakistan, the Gambia, Sierra Leone, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and the oh-so-foreign state of Florida. That was fascinating. I had never experienced that as a teacher before this year.

I exited the Memorial and ducked into a gift shop to warm up. I poked around the store and found a tiny little art book, the size of a postcard, that had  photographs of art created around the city in response to 9/11. Perfect for my class! As I stood in line to buy it, I flipped through its pages and found myself looking at Giovanna Gambale’s family’s stoop in Carroll Gardens; it was covered with candles, flowers, and the flyers of her. I felt as if the wind was knocked out of me, and I outwardly gasped, causing the British couple in front of me in line to turn around. I couldn’t explain to them the strange serendipity–how I had this girl’s face burned into my memory from 9/13/2001 onwards, how I had dug her name up to memorialize her that day, how her name was written in pretty cursive on my hand, and how now, almost fatefully, I was looking at her family’s house, a brownstone situated in the neighborhood between where I live and where I taught, and how this entire story of me and her seemed to come full circle.

Oh, life. It really is bigger than you and me.

Rest in Peace, Giovanna. Perhaps we will cross paths in a more direct way someday. Until then, you are in my heart.

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