Evergreen Montessori House

Just Let Children Be Children

In the big, open playroom at the Evergreen Montessori House, the last remnants of airplane drawings sit in a corner of the room. Gargi Das, director of the Dracut preschool, had a small stack of these airplanes in the weeks following Sept.11, pictures of multicolored jets, red planes, and black ones, with windows and without. But nowhere was there a skyscraper. And never did the airplanes crash. That was what Sept.11 was to young children, Das said - a world outside of their own, an event peripheral in their minds. And that's exactly the way it should be. "Just let children be children," Das said. "Let adults worry about adult things." But as children get older, particularly middle and high school age, the events become real. And with understanding comes the loss of innocence. Typically, children are to be protected, comforted and shielded from the horrors of life. But when the horrors of life morph from being " out there" to an instant replay on your nightly news, shielding children from the overwhelming destruction becomes impossible.

Now, a year after the world became an eyewitness to the worst terrorist attacks, such as children who lost parents, the emotional and psychological toll of Sept. 11 has been minimal, educators and students say. But that doesn't mean they can swallow tragedy whole. Children still need the help of adults when it comes to dealing with such universal sadness. "Often times, it's won't take anything for granted anymore," said 17-year-old Heather Watkins, a senior at Tewksbury High School. Rather than traumatizing students, many have found Sept. 11 to be a reason to work harder, to be more dedicated to life goals, and to enjoy their youth.

"It's changed my whole perspective on life. You really gain an appreciation for how precious everything is," said Tewksbury High School senior D.J. Bettencourt. "Everybody lost something during 9/11. Everyone was touched in some way. At the same time, you know you've got to move on. We're still here. We have an obligation to live." At least one local professor has seen a similar shift in his college students. Rather than move toward careers in finance or other well-paying jobs, Merrimack College visiting assistant professor Joshua Spero, a former strategic planner at the Pentagon, has seen his students opt for public service, or careers in the FBI or CIA. The students have integrated the realities that have changed for them in a post-9/11 world," he said. "When they're wondering about what kind of career paths they're going to take, it's changed quite dramatically and in positive ways. They're soared about the world out there, but they still want to travel abroad, they still want to go into international careers more so than they did a year ago. I'm hopeful about such developments."

For younger children, the date Sept. 11 means very little, to mark the day and remember what happened a year ago. Some middle and high schools have planned events on the anniversary to mark the occasion with students. The Butler Middle School in Lowell will host an observance ceremony, and Lowell High School will pause during the day for reflection. Some students at, the Butler school say Sept. 11 seemed to happen in a world not their own, affecting their lives but not drastically altering them in any way. But they don't think that distance will last forever.

"It's like it hasn't reached us yet," said Satyendra Polavarapu, a seventh grader at the Butler. We're going to learn about what happened when we get older. We're going to learn more of the bad stuff about it." And yet, as the anniversary approaches, they find themselves thinking about that day a bit more, about the time when Polavarapu was in gym class and knew something was wrong, about the moment when they got home from school and learned what had happened.

The day changed them subtly, made them realize that you can't take things for granted - and colors most of them they do today. Even if they don't realize it, said 13year-old Max Bisantz. "Everyone's affected by it, but they sometimes forget why they're doing things differently," said the Butler School eighth-grader. "This will help them remember."

Susan McMahon, Lowell Sun