(Posted Sept. 14, 2021)
By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor
How do you convey the impact of Sept. 11, 2001, to a generation born years after the devastating events of that day?
Until this year, Kelsey Flanik, a social studies teacher at London Middle School, would set aside time each September to show her students some YouTube videos and hold a class discussion, and it would end there.
“It wasn’t as impactful and meaningful as I wanted it to be, but I just got in a pattern. It was hard for the students to connect because they weren’t alive yet when it happened,” said Flanik.
With this year marking the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States, she knew she wanted to do something different–something more.
What would become a powerful lesson and tribute started as a brainstorm.
“I had a random idea over the summer: What if the kids actively got to do something?” said Flanik.
From there, she came up with the idea to display 2,977 American flags on the school grounds, one for each life lost on 9/11. Then she started making phone calls to see if she could bring the idea to life. A call to Jennifer Moore, director of the Madison County Veterans Service Center, got the ball rolling. Moore was able to supply the flags–all 2,977 of them.
“She was amazing and so proud to have Veterans Services involved,” Flanik said.
Next up was figuring out what the display would look like. For that, she turned to her students. They hashed out ideas on a whiteboard in the classroom, settling on a grid pattern they would measure out with string. Then they thought about inviting local first responders to be part of the tribute. Flanik reached out to the London Police Department and London Fire & EMS.
“Everyone was so excited to be part of it, so it started to piece together beautifully. I am beyond thrilled with how it turned out,” Flanik said.
On Thursday, Sept. 9, London Middle School’s 155 eighth-graders took turns in groups to plant the flags in the lawn near the school marquis along Keny Boulevard. Students used string to mark off six inches between flags and 16 inches between rows.
“As each group came outside, we reiterated what these flags meant,” said Michael Belmont, principal. “We were mindful of the flags being in the right direction, perfect separation, vertical. We told the students their tribute is a tribute to all those lives lost which affected thousands of families and millions of Americans because it was an attack on our country.”
“The kids understood that each flag represented a person who had had a family and a job,” Flanik said.
Once the flags were placed, the students practiced where they would stand for the official tribute and photos to take place the following day. Several firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical technicians would be joining them.
On Friday, Sept. 10, the students and first responders gathered on the lawn next to the display. A few days earlier, the police and fire departments had checked out the logistics to add the finishing touch–a 65-foot American flag suspended above the display from fire engine ladders.
“I had goosebumps up and down my arms seeing it come to life,” Flanik said. “It’s one thing to see it sketched out. It’s another thing to see the fire trucks and the 65-foot American flag. I’m really, really proud of what I got to do and what our kids did.”
Webster Photographics donated their services to capture the event, taking aerial shots from a lift supplied by local contractor Doug Peterman who donated the use of the equipment. Each student will receive a digital copy of the group photo, and banners will hang around the school.
The students will experience another tribute to lives lost on 9/11 when they make the annual eighth-grade trip to Washington D.C. May 17-20. The trip includes a visit to the Pentagon Memorial, a permanent outdoor memorial to the 184 people who died when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the building.
London Middle School eighth-graders shared their thoughts following their tribute to the 2,977 Americans who lost their lives in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
“9/11 is a very internationally important day, no matter who you are. It’s a day of respect, tragedy, and memories. To me it means a day of remembrance. When we were taking the picture for the news, it felt so powerful, so natural, and like it was helping so many people–no matter who they are. It made me a bit emotional, honestly. I’m so glad I got to help, and I can’t wait to see how people react to this for years in the future. Thank you so much for letting me be a part of such an important event in so many people’s lives.”
“I felt as if this tribute really did help me (and maybe others) understand that all of those flags were people who had families and people who loved them. It was harder before to understand as much, since our generation was born after the tragedy and all we’ve seen really were recalls of the event and videos. So, overall I was happy that our school had the chance to do this, and I hope that eighth-graders every year can do something like this.”
“9/11 is for sure a day that I will never forget. Even though I wasn’t alive, it still means a lot to me. My dad was serving in the U.S Navy. On the day, he was out at sea, and when he got the word, he thought he would never see my mom again. I remember asking him about it, and he said, “When we got the word, we could only hope for the worst. We were told that when we come back, there might be nothing left.” Just the thought of my dad never being able to see mom again makes me want to cry. My mother was working at Jacksonville University at the time of the attack, and I can only imagine how scary it was for her.
Putting the flags in front of the school gave me a sense of comfort because the flags are more than just pieces of cloth on a stick. It’s a tribute to those who are gone but never forgotten.
I might not have been alive around the time of this history-shaking event, but I can picture the horror and pain of those lost and those hurt. We may not be able to bring back what was lost, but we can build on the pain and make this country stronger, not just as a country but as a family. I am so lucky to have both of my parents with me today. They have shaped me into the person I am today. I may have been spacing out a little bit on Thursday after putting the flags in the ground. That was me picturing the events of the fateful day.”
“It made me feel good that all the families of the victims know that people are still remembering them, and it made me feel honored.”
“The 9/11 tribute meant a lot to me, even if I didn’t know anyone in that tragic event. I think our school did an amazing thing for all of the deaths. Those families lost someone they loved, and our school showed how much that means to us. Many people probably think that they are just flags, but to us and the families, the flags resemble a person and a life lost. Like Mrs. Flanik said, every year we did the same thing and never really learned new things. Putting the flags out this year showed us how tragic the event was, and the families lost so much. So, I think putting those flags out meant so much to all of us.”