Geography teacher in NY state of mind
For Rifle High School teacher Matt Petersen, Sept. 11 is, in his words, a “bittersweet day.”
It didn’t used to be. Until last year, Sept. 11 was a day to celebrate. It was Petersen’s birthday. It still is – but it’s a lot more intense and convoluted now.
“My wife looked at me this morning and said, `You don’t look happy,'” Petersen told his world geography class on Wednesday afternoon. “How can I be? I’m supposed to be selfish and celebrate? Every other Sept. 11 prior to last year was a great day. But I don’t need a bunch of people singing `Happy Birthday’ to me today. It’ll never, ever, ever have the same effect that it once did. Now when I hear 9-11, it’s famous for something that’s not a positive thing.”
Petersen has a unique perspective on the Sept. 11 attacks. Not only does he share his birth date with the 21st century’s own “day that lives in infamy,” but he has an up close and personal perspective on the World Trade Center.
Three years ago, Petersen was one of 18 teachers selected throughout the United States to participate in a National Geographic education program. He spent a month in New York City studying ethnic diversity and issues of cultural relocation.
He visited various boroughs in New York and discovered how different nationalities occupied the sections of the city at different times. He also spent time at the World Trade Center with the National Geographic group, looking at how employees and staff from multinational corporations work together.
Petersen’s geography class is scheduled right after lunch, and students were still buzzing from the break on Wednesday. One boy tried flirting with a girl in class – with limited success. Others arrived with their homework assignments: rolled up poster boards with maps and timelines drawn on them.
One girl’s face turned ashen and she brought her hands to her mouth when she realized her homework assignment was due – and she hadn’t done it. A group of students huddled together, talking and laughing.
One girl wore a shirt printed with American flags. Others were dressed in red, white and blue.
The bell rang, but the noise and banter continued until Petersen barked out a “Hey! Let’s quiet down.”
Once class started, the mood shifted dramatically.
“Earlier today, we had a moment of silence and we said the Pledge of Allegiance,” Petersen said. “This is kind of a second Memorial Day,” said Petersen. “It’s definitely not a day of celebration.”
That’s when he hit the class with his birthday news. Suddenly, no one was laughing, talking or flirting. All eyes were on their teacher.
Petersen told the students that Sept. 11 is one of those historical days they will never forget.
“Ask your parents where they were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated,” he said. “Ask your grandparents where they were when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Your children will ask you the same question: Where were you on Sept. 11?”
Petersen told the students that he was going to show them a series of slides. A boy walked to the back of the room to shut off the lights. A girl, who earlier had been giggling with another student, motioned to another student sitting near the window to pull the blinds.
Petersen showed his slides, illustrating where the World Trade Center was. He showed them maps of lower Manhattan and the location and immenseness of the center.
He told them the World Trade Center wasn’t just the two towers, but was actually made up of seven buildings. He described how the towers used to be two of the tallest buildings in the world. He showed slides he had taken of the trade center’s open air plaza, and the giant globe sculpture and fountain that once used to sit in the center.
Now that center is Ground Zero.
“The World Trade Center was the financial heart of the world,” he said as he showed slides of the towers.
One slide depicted the view from the top of one of the towers, and Petersen pointed out the Brooklyn and George Washington bridges, and the Holland Tunnel. Petersen showed an inside shot of the mezzanine in Tower 1. He had another slide of the inside of one of the elevators going up to the 107th floor. Another shot, taken from the plaza straight up the side of one of the towers, showed window washers working on a scaffolding at least 75 stories up.
“Oh man,” said a student.
“I would faint,” said another.
“I’m going to end on this image,” Petersen said as a slide flashed on the screen. It was an inside shot, taken near the top of one of the towers, and overlooking the streets and buildings below.
“I want you to think about the decision some people made that day,” he said. “I want you to think about how bad the conditions had to be for this to be the best choice.” He was referring to the people who jumped from the windows of the towers, knowing for certain that they would be killed by the fall.
“Someone on the scene said it seemed like it was raining people,” he said. “When Sept. 11 comes around every year, I want you to remember those people, and all the firemen and police, and every person who was affected on this day.”
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Since Colorado’s not yet in the clear of the global pandemic, the Garfield School District Re-2 is heading into next year with a relatively frugal budget.