He wouldn't be born for another three years, but 12-year-old Nathan Williams knows exactly what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.

"It was a tragic day when four planes were hijacked and two crashed into the Twin Towers, one into the Pentagon and then one crashed in Pennsylvania," said Williams, a seventh-grader at Satz School in Holmdel.

Marleigh and Nathan Williams, Holmdel
Marleigh and Nathan Williams, 10 and 12, of Holmdel (Photo provided by Williams family)

Following his second day of the school year, Williams came home with a special assignment: interview a family member who was alive during the 9/11 attacks.

"We had to ask them questions about what they remembered from that day," he said.

His sister Marleigh, a fifth-grader at Indian Hill School, plans to do her first current-events assignment on the 15-year anniversary of that catastrophic Tuesday morning.

"Terrorists can be planning anything and they can attack at any time and at any point," she said, speaking of what she's learned in school.

It's not the easiest or most pleasant subject to cover during the first few days of a new academic year, but teachers at schools throughout New Jersey say it needs to be done.

As part of his Recent American History course at Middletown High School South, Victor Bayers devotes an entire unit to the deadly attacks. Per capita, Middletown was the hardest-hit city beyond New York City in terms of casualties.

When he returned to teaching from an administrative role, Bayers said, he realized students were not as informed about 9/11 as he thought they'd be. And last year, when he asked his students how many were directly affected by the attacks, just one hand was raised — a number that's been gradually declining over the years.

Beyond finding connections between 9/11 and Bruce Springsteen's album "The Rising," Bayers' unit also asks students to interview their parents about that day.

"I think it's more of an awakening for the student to the gravity of the event and how it affected this town in particular," Bayers said. "There's a new-found respect for the event."

A flower and an American flag are placed on the next to the names inscribed on the edge of the memorial pool during observances for the eleventh anniversary of 9/11
A flower and an American flag are placed next to the names inscribed on the edge of the memorial pool during observances for the anniversary of 9/11. (Mary Altaffer-Pool/Getty Images)

Kerry Eisman, now in his 19th year as a social studies teacher at Manalapan High School, said he has to "walk a fine line" when discussing the terrorist attacks with his classes. They've been together for less than a week, and he's not exactly sure how students will respond.

"It just becomes a very emotional class so early in the year, but it's worth it because it has to be talked about," Eisman said.

Eisman said he remembers that September morning minute by minute. One of his students was called down to the office and later learned his father had passed away.

On Monday, he plans to present projects from past students featuring images from 9/11 in order to kickstart the conversation.


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