Tragedy Revisited: Talking With My Students About Paris

Posted November 16, 2015

On September 11th, 2001, I was a sixteen-year-old junior at the Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn with minimal political activism and  little to no knowledge of Middle East geography and ideologies.

On November 16th, 2015, I stood in front of a group of seventeen sixteen-year-old French and French-American students, tasked with helping them understand what transpired in Paris on Friday, November 13th and trying to make sense of a world that had just recently been shattered for them.

As I walked into that room, I was no more sure of my ability to help them make sense of things than I had been fourteen years ago when I had been forced to do the same thing for myself. Yet, ten minutes into the conversation one of my students, a girl that I first taught when she was twelve years old, looked at me and asked what I was thinking, as an American teacher in a French school and a New Yorker who had lived here during September 11th.


I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been considering the connection over the past 48 hours. I thought of my students refreshing their Twitter and Facebook feeds the same way I remembered myself and fifteen friends huddled around the same TV in Brooklyn Heights, searching for answers. I thought of my students gathering on Saturday in Washington Square Park the same way I remembered my friends filling the NYC streets in the subsequent days after 9/11. I thought about my students looking at photos of the carnage in their hometown the same way I remembered walking home that next day through the police checkpoints and the unrelenting stench of burning metal and flesh.

I had experienced something similar, but still I felt woefully unprepared to talk to them about it. I wasn’t  sure I had even worked out my feelings about what had happened the first time around. It’s possible I had just left them in a far corner of my mind and let time and years of college courses bury them somewhere I could barely reach without heavy tools.

Or, as it turns out, another explosion, which suddenly removed the covering layer and left the undigested thoughts stark and unavoidable. How had I felt? Would my students feel the same way or had the world changed too much since then?

As my students looked at me, waiting for an answer, I mentioned my similar feelings of anger and confusion. I mentioned the desire to know and the unavoidable feeling of being wronged. I mentioned the selfish feeling of making it about me, a person with no family or friend casualties. I said some other things that I can barely remember.

They nodded and continued the silence that had filled the room for the previous few minutes, and I instantly felt that I had failed a major test.

But how do you put words to those types of feelings? How do you tell them that it’s okay to not be able to? How do you explain to students the anger, not just at the perpetrators of the acts but the people who keep trying to talk about it? The need to find out more that clashes with the simultaneous desire to want to never speak about it again? The feeling of gratefulness to those who offered support and well wishes from afar, balanced with the desire for them to stop talking as if they were somehow going through it with us.

When everybody expects you to only be heart-broken, how can you rationalize the other emotions? How can you reject the empathy? It seems callous to shy away from the comforting words, but isn’t it also disingenuous to act as if you welcome support that you don’t feel in need of?

Instead, I had looked around a room of seventeen students who seemed to have no desire, or ability, to put their feelings into words and rambled on for a few minutes before closing my mouth. In the simple action of shutting up, I realized that I might as well have been my sixteen-year-old self seated next to them. Even with fourteen more years of life and a similar experience to draw on, I had no more ability to eloquently give voice to my thoughts than I could have those years ago. My students and I were indeed united, but not by country or suffering, by our shared confusion and inadequacy with words.

One of my former students eloquently stated that we are living in a time of intolerance around the world. I’m not  sure it was much different in 2001, and I can’t help but wonder how much our teachers struggled to guide us through that moment. But the truth of it is, I don’t remember what my teachers said in the same way that I’m sure my students won’t remember the meeting we just had. These times of tragedy that feel universal and collective are at once intensely personal. I’m sure my teachers tried to help me process it, and I’m grateful for the insurmountable task they took on, but it always was going to begin and end with me in the same way it will begin and end with my students.

It’s their life and their feelings and no amount of news articles or kind gestures from across the world, however moving, will comb through the tangled mess that’s currently woven inside them, All I can offer is the assurance that their emotions, whatever they are, are valid, that their voices, when they can find them, will be heard, and that their lives, whatever they want them to be, will most certainly go on.