Honor 9/11, but not in preschool storytime
There are moments in your life you never forget. Their memory hangs like a picture in your mind with stark clarity. Blink and you can see a slide show of those moments.
I sat in my English class in the 8th grade day the Challenger exploded. We were there, watching it live, as we watched the crew walk onto the shuttle. We all know what happens next.
I was at work on 9/11 at the Washington-Centerville Public Library. In fact, I had already given my two weeks notice and had less than a week left as I was getting ready to leave and start the next step in my career. No one knew what would happen next; a paralyzing fear gripped us – would there be more attacks? Was this the next World War?
Thing 1 is now almost a teen. One of the very patrons I am commissioned to serve. She was born in 2002. Our oldest teens were born in the year 1995. They were 6 when 9/11 happened, kindergartners. Some of them may recall that day, but it still probably doesn’t mean to them what it means to those of us who were old enough to understand what was happening and to see how much it has changed our world. I actually spend a lot of time thinking about what this day means to us as a nation, and what it means to our teens; what it must be like for them to live in a post 9/11 world and not really understand the shift that has happened. I imagine it must be somewhat similar to what Vietnam was like for us. I understand the history of it, but there isn’t that visceral emotion attached to it like 9/11 has for me. The facts of Vietnam don’t sear my soul with memory in the same way that 9/11 does. Vietnam is a history lesson I learned, 9/11 was a day I lived.
I am also the mom to a toddler. Thing 2 is 4; spunky, passionate, pretty sure of what she wants in life. She has no idea about 9/11. Today she will get up and go to her Pre-K class and it will be just another Wednesday to her. She will spend the entire day asking us, “Do you know what day it is?” just so she can say “Hump Day” in that annoying camel way. We can all thank The Mr. for that. She lives in a post 9/11 world, but she is too young to understand what that means. She’s still trying to learn her ABCs and to say please and thank you.
Lately there has been a lot of chatter on the Internet about storytime and how we should incorporate 9/11 into our preschool storytimes. Here’s the thing: we shouldn’t.
Storytime is not a history class. It is not a time and a place for us to wrestle with our ghosts and demons. It is a time for us to help young children to develop pre-literacy skills and to work on their social skills. It is a time for us to make developmentally appropriate choices for the small children that parents have entrusted us with for that 45 minute session.
There are big emotions that come along with this day. It is the day when we all realized that we were not as safe as we thought we were, that people would attack us right here on our own soil. It is a day full of terror and tears. It is a day full of emotions and implications that are too big for most 4 year olds to wrestle with. But more importantly, it is a day that many would argue 3 and 4 and 5 year olds should be protected from because they are not at the same place as us intellectually, emotionally, or developmentally.
There is also something to be said about respecting a parent’s right to talk to their children about heavy subjects with dark undertones in their own time and in their own way. I have never seen a library storytime about grief, or cancer, or sexual abuse for the very reasons that I don’t think we need to be having storytimes about what today means to our country. Every child is different, every family is different, and while we can’t argue the facts of the ABCs (A will always be A), we must acknowledge that the bigger issues are not so cut and dry – not all families would choose to talk with their preschoolers about this day and because we don’t function in loco parentis, we shouldn’t be making those decisions for them. Yes, have pictures books on the subject so parents can choose to read them to their children on their own terms, but don’t whip those out in storytime.
We have a tendency to want to tell people how they should think and feel, as if there is only one right way. I learned about this tendency when I lost my baby. People wanted to tell me what I should do, how I should feel, how long it was okay to feel that way. And since 9/11, many people have embraced the idea of blind patriotism as if those outside of that view are not fans of America. This is what I fear is some of the motivation for wanting to honor 9/11 in storytime. It is as if there is a fear that if we don’t acknowledge and honor it in every aspect of our day, we fail to be true patriots. And yet if we looked closely, many of us would find that there are layers and differences in what we believe patriotism to be. And it is, for those of us who allow ourselves to continue to take in new information and grow, an evolving concept. Patriotism doesn’t have to mean blind allegiance, it can also mean questioning our country and holding it accountable to the ideals that we believe make us a more moral, humane nation. Having a storytime about The Very Hungry Caterpillar on 9/11 doesn’t make you less of a patriot, it makes you an informed librarian who understands the developmental stages of your patron base that respects the rights of your storytime parents to teach their children about big, nuanced themes in their own time and in their own way.
What does all this have to do with being a teen librarian? Absolutely nothing probably. Although it is a good reminder to us all that the choices we make for our patrons should be developmentally appropriate, culturally sensitive, and respect the rights of parents. I have done teen programming on sensitive themes, but it is always very clear in my promotion for the event, allowing parents to make the decision if they want their teen to come and talk about things like dating violence. So if you absolutely feel like you need to have a 9/11 storytime theme today, I hope you made it clear to your parents that it would be the theme of the day so they can opt out if they want to. And opt out I would. My toddler already worries enough about the monsters in the closet, she doesn’t need to know there are real monsters out there.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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