On a recent afternoon in early September, sitting in the very same classroom at Central High School, Scott Wilson walks through his day on Sept. 11, 2001, like it was yesterday.
Wilson, like other teachers who were in classrooms on 9/11, were with their students as they watched history unfold live on television.
Wilson didn’t have a first-period class on that Tuesday 20 years ago, so he started his day watching the events in New York City on a TV in the school library.
News of what was going on traveled to Central through a phone call to one of the teachers, Wilson said. After the call, everyone turned their eyes to the TV screens.
“There was definitely sadness, and just a real serious, somber tone that not only held over the school but anywhere else you went that day,” he said.
Many teachers and students thought the incident was an accident at first, Wilson said, but they quickly learned that was not the case.
After the second plane hit the World Trade Center, he said, “of course, at that moment, you knew that was completely intentional.”
When it was time for his second-period class, Wilson wheeled in a TV to allow students to watch the live broadcast.
“As a history teacher I felt like this was the most compelling story. It was going to supersede any lesson that I had for that day,” said Wilson, a winner of the Alice Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award.
Claire MacGeorge was a senior at Burke High in the fall of 2001. She said the mood there was also somber, as people realized the seriousness of what was happening. That afternoon, she said, everyone was glued to the TVs.
“Particularly as we got further into the day, it became clear that nobody was going to be able to concentrate on anything else,” she said.
Wilson said one of the things he marvels at when looking back at that day is how differently news travels today. No one was getting news alerts on their cellphones in 2001. People had to rely on landline calls and small TV screens for updates.
Like many people, Wilson said he will never forget the events of that day, and students have reached out to him on the fifth, 10th and 15th anniversaries of 9/11. He expects to hear from a handful of students this year, too.
“What a searing memory, experiencing that in this classroom with all my students,” he said.
Wilson sees 9/11 as a generational moment similar to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 during his parents’ generation and the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 during his grandparents’ generation.
While 20 years have passed, 9/11 remains an important event in Wilson’s history curriculum. However, he said his students’ personal connections to the event have decreased over the years.
“In the years that were closer to 2001, students would share their experience of how they were at school and how they found out,” he said.
In 2021, most of Wilson’s oldest students were born in 2004, so he asks them to talk to their parents about their experiences that day.
“The students are still very interested in it, and quite a few of them are pretty familiar with the story of it,” he said.
Discussing how President George W. Bush traveled to Omaha on Sept. 11 also provides a point of interest for students, Wilson said.
The memories of Sept. 11 aren’t going anywhere for those who witnessed it, Wilson said, and the event will live on as a part of American history.
“The events of 9/11 just cast such a long shadow,” he said. “It’s so seared into the memory of everyone who you know who experienced that.”