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Squandered


On September 11, 2001, as the first jet hit the north tower of the World Trade Center, I was sitting in the bleachers with a group of seventh graders I had known for a total of five days. When the early-September, let's-get-motivated assembly ended and we trooped back down the hall, the world had shifted. We watched together as the second plane hit, and saw the devastation at the Pentagon. Then, the news was too awful to watch.

It became a day of talking, in spite of the superintendent's phoned-in directive to stick to our lesson plans. A day of honest fears and occasional tears. The questions my students asked were perceptive and poignant: What's a terrorist? Do these people hate us? Will there be a war? Will my brother be drafted? How can someone just fly a plane into a building?

I was struck by their desire to understand what had happened, to make some sense of the craziness, genuine curiosity about what the adults in their world had to say about these events. They were anxious to talk, wanting to form their own opinions. Most of all, they were ready to do something.

My school has a tradition of community service, reaching out to aid families in need. Our usual modus operandi--collecting donations in homerooms--seemed pretty insignificant after 9/11, especially when millions of dollars were rolling in to the American Red Cross and volunteers were driving cross-country to lend their skills to the relief effort.

We made handmade banners of support and sent modest contributions, but my students expressed dismay over not being able to do more. We're not old enough to go there, they said. We don't have a lot of money. We can't save lives or serve food or help clean up the mess. We're just kids--there's not much we can do.

I told them that the most important thing they could do, right now, was get serious about their education. Don't even think, I told them, about blowing off the seventh grade. Suddenly, in sharp and terrible focus, we have a graphic illustration of why it's important for the United States to develop the talents of every single one of its young citizens.

Think of all the skills and opportunities that will quickly become critical in this post-apocalyptic world: International diplomats and political negotiators, security and defense technicians, cultural anthropologists, immunologists, translators of Arabic and Farsi, Pashtu and Dari. Not to mention the playwrights, musicians and artists who struggle to help us make sense of this new world.

We need citizens who can analyze complex ideas, take advantage of advances in science and technology--and solve problems neither they nor their teachers have ever considered. Education has long been the ticket to personal success. It may now be our best long-term defense strategy and hope for a peaceful future.

It was quite a speech. And they were paying attention.

We've now sent nine post-9/11 graduating classes out into an uncertain world. Our national security, our progress and prosperity, our position as world leader and beacon for human potential and freedom--they're still up for grabs. We're no less dependent on a commitment to a world-class education for every child, especially children who are hard to teach. We can't afford to lose anyone--we need them all. But what have education leaders accomplished since then?

Our students are still wondering what it means to be an American. Kids are natural patriots. They instinctively want to belong to something larger, something important. They have a strong desire to contribute, to be a productive part of a group, sharing values and pride. This is why school sports are popular. It's also why gangs continue to thrive.

Have we squandered the terrible momentum engendered by that day in September?

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