For me, spending September 11, 2013 teaching in Clifden, Ireland was an eye-opening experience that inspired a lot of reflection. I spent the first two periods of the day sitting in on a fifth-year modern U.S. history class. The students were learning about the Vietnam War, covert operations by the CIA, and “Banana Republics”—heavy, complicated stuff. About halfway through the morning, I was called upon to lead a short discussion about the parallels between U.S. military involvement in Vietnam and the current situation in Syria.
I mentioned that I am from New York City, and thus piqued the students’ interest. “Were you there when 9/11 happened?” One girl asked. Yes, I was. “Do you remember a lot of it?” Not too much.
“Is it true that over a million people died in the Middle East because the U.S. military went in, but only 3,000 people died in 9/11?” a boy blurted out suddenly. It was less the question itself that threw me than the way he asked it. It was accusatory, bitter, distrustful.
“Yes,” I said, “it is true.” The air in the classroom became tighter. The teacher cleared his throat. Most of the students looked away, embarrassed. Did they think I was going to take offense at their criticism of U.S. foreign policy?
“It’s just,” another girl said after a long pause, “a lot of us think America should, ah, stay out of things more.”
“I certainly agree with you,” I answered, still nonplussed. The classroom atmosphere suddenly relaxed again.
“Does that mean that you’re a Democrat?” a student inquired. I froze; a million possible answers each varying in complexity crowded each other out. The voter registration card in my wallet says Democrat. Yet our Democratic president is currently attempting to take military action in Syria.
“It’s a bit complicated,” I said pathetically. “I’m certainly a leftist.”
“What’s the difference between left and right?” a normally quiet student suddenly burst out. “Is it the same as in Ireland?” I was about to launch into a (surely inadequate) lecture about the two political stances when I remembered that the time was not mine to take up, and that for all intents and purposes I was a guest in this classroom. I told them that it was a fascinating and knotty issue, and that we could absolutely talk about it more after class (which we did). The teacher resumed the lesson.
I left the school building that afternoon feeling both exhilarated and emotionally turbulent. Foremost among my tangled thoughts: Why wasn’t I talking about this stuff when I was sixteen? I was fortunate enough to attend one of the best public high schools in New York City. We read Faulkner and Malcolm X, we constructed models of cancer cells. But when it came to talking about current political situations at home and abroad, I remember a gaping silence where difficult and important conversations should have been.
It is uncomfortable to think that the Clifden students saw me as an ambassador of my country’s violent history when I, of course, don’t see myself in that way. It is also startling to realize how far ahead they are in terms of the “critical thinking skills” that we at Vassar love to talk about so much. I hope that as an educator, I can one day open up my classroom to discussions during which students challenge me and each other, as well as the norms that are invisible to us.