Like most educators across the nation, Tyler Junior College government professor David McClendon was in his classroom on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
“One of my students came in and said a plane had hit one of the big skyscrapers in New York City, and you kind of thought, ‘Oh, what a tragic accident,’” he said. “But then, after class was when we found out about the second plane and it became evident that this wasn’t just an accident but something much worse.”
Even though he was grappling with the magnitude of the event, he knew that he needed to be a source of calm and reason for his students.
“One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that one of the ways we are able to control our emotions is to understand them and try to find some semblance of order or logic, to try to make it make some kind of sense,” he said.
He thought back to President Ronald Reagan’s televised speech after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in January 1986.
“Reagan basically said, ‘Things are going to happen that you don’t expect, and you learn from those moments. We will learn from this, and we will learn to do better,’” McClendon said.
“I was able to carry that forward here in terms of there’s a moment in time where you have to spend some time processing the emotions of the moment but also processing the details of that moment to be able to understand and learn from it.”
McClendon threw himself into full-on professorial mode.
“In those first moments [of the 9/11 terror attack], it didn’t matter what the values were behind whoever had done this kind of a thing — but rather it was more important to try to help the students understand what was going on and try to walk them through an understanding of why someone or a group of people would have done something like this,” he said.
“But then, once Al-Qaeda laid claim to it, it became, ‘OK, now we know who did this and we know this is where they are, so from that information we can now start back-reasoning and understanding how it came to be.’”
So, he put his class syllabus aside for the time being and, for the next few weeks, taught a crash course in Middle Eastern politics.
“It was the biggest teachable moment that had ever presented itself in my classroom,” he said. “I took advantage of it to be able to help my students process what was going on in the world and figure out how the world would be moving forward. The moment demanded that we understand this from as intellectual a side as possible.”
Of course, emotions and uncertainty were still a major concern.
“There was a very real fear among students, even here in deep East Texas, that we didn’t know what would happen next — or where something else might happen,” he said.
“There was also the aspect of feeling overwhelmed by the onslaught of news. There was this constant barrage of the event playing on our emotions on a regular basis, and it was like we became almost addicted to that need to be constantly aware of what was going on and to try to be prepared.”
It was a long way back to any semblance of normalcy.
That year, McClendon also served as an academic advisor on campus, and he saw firsthand how some students struggled to find their footing.
“I actually had some students come in and say, ‘I can’t handle the stress anymore, the world is falling apart, my classes are falling apart, and I need to withdraw from school,” he said.
“But, on the flip side of that, I know that I did help a lot of people because, to this day, I have people who were in my classes during that semester who thank me when they see me and say that I helped them through that, helped them understand the world better, and helped them figure out a way to be able to think through moments like this in a way that they didn’t know how to do before.”
Fast-forward two decades, and McClendon’s 9/11 teachable moment is very different.
“The original event is not really in the minds of any of our students today because they weren’t around to experience it,” he said.
Out of all of his classes this semester, only one student was alive on Sept. 11, 2001 — and she was 5 years old.
“Her only memory from that day was that she went home early from day care,” he said.
“The conversation in the classroom today isn’t about what happened 20 years ago, it’s what is happening now in relation to what happened 20 years ago. The [military] withdrawal from Afghanistan is the conversation now,” he said.
“The initial invasion of Afghanistan [in 2001] and then Iraq [in 2003] were monumental events that involved a lot of people; and, during that time, I actually had students withdraw from school to join the services to go and fight and be part of the military.”
For many years, he said, students were conscious of what was going on in the Middle East because many of their friends were serving in the military; but those memories have dimmed over time.
“Many students today might remember Osama bin Laden being killed [in May 2011],” he said. “They were old enough and aware of what was going on in the world when that happened, but it didn’t spawn a patriotic surge in military registrations or anything like that. If anything, that may have signaled to a lot of people that we’ve finally done what we’ve set out to do, we got him, and they sort of checked it off and moved on.”
And as the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has been drawn down over the years, the number of people connected to it has decreased dramatically.
“Today, it’s more of a policy issue discussion of what’s going on in foreign affairs, how the United States government is involved and what could happen next,” he said.
As in September 2001, there remains a bit of uncertainty and the need to keep a level head.
“With the withdrawal from Afghanistan, we find ourselves asking many of the same questions of 20 years ago,” McClendon said. “We’re asking ourselves what happened and what went wrong, and the teachable moment now will be how we learn from this so that the history of Sept. 11, 2001 doesn’t repeat itself.”