SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Although Ground Zero in New York City is more than 160 miles away, Tiger Patrick is helping local school children know about heroes of 9/11 and others like them keeping their community safe every day.
Last week he helped to organize with local police, fire, emergency medical service and other officials a visit of first responders to each of the town’s schools and to children in a generation not yet born when the tragedy happened.
“It’s about sharing with students a dramatic event that happened here in the United States and changed everything afterward and showing them in person the role of first responders,” Patrick said.
Across the country veterans, first responders, families, teachers and torch-bearers of that day marked the 20th anniversary with the millions remembering the events along with a generation understanding it as a history lesson rather than having experienced a part of that day in some way.
Seeing First Responders
Craig Stanley, South Kingstown’s chief of emergency medical services, said, “It is important for the students to know that the first responders were doing their job and while as a first responder you knowingly go into danger and you might even be scared, but we do what we do to save the lives of others.”
The day before 9/11/21, between 7:30 a.m. and 10:45 a.m., Patrick and local first responders went to seven schools for a 15-minute “High 5,” as he called it. Students and first responders just waved rather than touch hands as they did in previous years.
Elementary school children also gave them handmade cards and letters, added Patrick, who volunteered in New York after the attack and is a local advocate for social and veteran’s causes. He is also commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 916 in South Kingstown.
“I am thrilled that we were able to continue our ‘High 5’s’ for Heroes tradition again this year, with Covid-19 safe accommodations, at all of our schools,” said Wakefield Elementary School Principal Coleen Smith.
“The students made beautiful signs, cards and posters for our local first responders. Here at Wakefield Elementary, the children came outside of their classrooms and cheered for our local firefighters and police officers as they walked a lap around the school, collecting cards and showing their gratitude,” she said.
For older students, it was a time of reflection.
Will Schold, 16, a South Kingstown High School student, remarked, “Although I was not alive to experience the result of the attacks on 9/11, I now look at it as a moment of unity and patriotism. It is impossible to imagine the feeling that America had during those times.”
“9/11 gives us an opportunity to mourn the victims, yet it brings us together in a way. For me, I try my best to understand the effects of the tragedy, while also realizing that I will never be able to fully know what it was like,” he said.
Schold offered a balanced view on ways to present the history of the tragedy.
“I think that everyone should acknowledge every aspect of the attack. It is unfair to weigh one over the other. The almost 3,000 lives lost should be constantly recognized and reflected upon for every American. That being said, I think 9/11 should be a reminder to be prepared and aware for terrorist attacks,” he said.
While today’s students don’t have memories from that day and have only heard about them through others, questions will arise and need to be answered fully by parents and educators, said academics and others who have studied the teaching of 9/11 in schools.
Smith said that she understands that part well. “We strive to make our celebration developmentally appropriate for our young learners and a positive message for our first responders and our community,” the principal said.
Protecting the Memory
Patrick, a military veteran, along with first responders, have said that this day of remembrance is a teaching moment to fight the passing of time that can be like a rip current pulling poignant and emotional events further into history and away from present-day connections.
“Many of the younger generation were not here to experience first-hand the events that unfolded that day. I think it’s extremely important to teach our young generation about this tragic day in our history,” said South Kingstown Police Chief Joel Ewing-Chow.
“It is critical for our younger generation and frankly all of our country to understand the sacrifices that our first responders made on 9/11,” he added.
“Their acts of bravery, heroism and self-sacrifice show the dedication our first responders have to protecting the lives and property of the citizens whom they serve. We should never forget the events of 9/11 and we should also keep in mind that our first responders serve our communities 24/7, 365 days a year,” the chief said.
Steve Pinch, South Kingstown fire chief, said, “With the event now being 20 years old, we need to continue to hold these types of events each year.”
He added that they also help to spur discussions with their parents who did experience the tragedy.
Patrick volunteered at Ground Zero in the days after the attack. On Aug. 7, 2011, he walked from the Pentagon to Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and then on to New York City in one month just in time to reach Ground Zero on Sept. 11.
Part of the that experience, he said, has driven him to keep this event alive for local children who may only know the event from an historical point of view the same as they learn about George Washington’s leadership in the Revolutionary War.
His thinking and that of local first responders align with what’s happening nationally.
In the early years, it was an emotionally charged topic, but now more of the challenge is engaging students so distanced from it, said Anthony Gardner, whose brother Harvey died at the World Trade Center, in an interview with The Associated Press.
Gardner founded the September 11th Education Trust, which released a curriculum to help teachers incorporate 9/11-related lessons not just on the anniversary but in coursework throughout the year.
Police Chief Ewing-Chow, echoing the phrase “in valor there is hope,” also sees today’s first responders as a face of heroes on 9/11 and students connecting with them also learn about the events of that tragedy. Students also learn to appreciate what they do for society at large today.
“They are our guardians and put their own lives at risk daily. So, the next time anyone sees a police officer, firefighter, EMS worker, or military member, smile and tell them thanks. Those few kind words are so very much appreciated,” he said.