Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Teaching my child about the 9/11 attacks

By Rose Arce, CNN
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
Reporter Rose Arce used the Twin Towers as a compass point, and when they were gone, she felt lost in her city.
Reporter Rose Arce used the Twin Towers as a compass point, and when they were gone, she felt lost in her city.
  • Rose Arce was a reporter on the ground in New York after the September 11, 2001, attacks
  • Arce struggled to explain the attacks to her daughter when she was old enough
  • She and her daughter, Luna, visit the September 11 memorial and Luna learns more in school
  • The attacks changed the landscape of their neighborhood and their lives

Editor's note: Rose Arce is a senior producer in CNN's New York bureau who covered the September 11, 2001, attacks and a contributor to Mamiverse, a website for Latinas and their families. The essay below was originally published on the 11th anniversary of the terror attacks.

(CNN) -- The new North Tower is finally high enough to partially restore the skyline I used to see when I stepped outside my home in Greenwich Village.

It was a glorious sight before September 11, 2001. Two shiny towers created a reference point for miles around, giving Manhattan the center of its compass, just like the Eiffel tower does in Paris or the Capitol Building in Washington.

I pointed out the new one to my little girl, Luna, this morning on the way to school.

2001: Reporter's notebook on 9/11 attack
9/11 organization helps rebuild house

"This is how we know we're walking west," I told her. "Because the tower is to the South."

"Is that like the one that fell down?" she asked. Yes, I thought to myself, it actually is.

When you make your way around upper Manhattan, there is an easy north-south, east-west street pattern to show you the way. But when you hit Greenwich Village, the streets go every which way.

Before September 11, 2001, the easy way to find true north was to use the towers as a reference point. After that day, the compass just spun, as the city struggled to figure out which way to go.

I had walked out of my apartment that day to see my tower, my reference point, with a burning hole punched deep inside its face. For the next few hours I ran around downtown reporting for CNN on a series of horrific events -- people leaping to their death, buildings collapsing, debris burning, and firefighters at odds with a fire that wouldn't go out.

I lived alone back then, so when I finally went home a full day later I didn't have to explain to anyone why the absence of that tower made me feel as directionless as the city around me. And for many years, I walked back out my door beneath the empty sky and made my way north by mere habit.

Triple-amputee veteran gets 'smart' home on September 11

Luna was born in 2005, four years after the attacks, as the city was just finding its way. It speaks volumes about something when you can't explain it to a child. So I was happy that I wouldn't have to do that for a few years, although somehow her presence made it easier to chart a new course.

September 11, 2005, was a beautiful, bright and sunny day. It was Primary day and I walked to vote, carrying Luna in a baby Bjorn. It was funny to see her tiny hands stressing to push the metal levers in the ballot box.

By the time she could walk, the same Hudson River parks where ambulances had carted off the injured had been replaced by water parks and swing sets. She loved a particular duck pond where debris had sat idle for months. That year was also the fifth anniversary, but she didn't watch TV yet, so her youth spared me the annual reading of the names and the moments of silence.

That year we also took her on her first plane trip and her tiny hands left prints on the window ovals as she marveled at the reflections of the sun.

Note lets family know 9/11 victim went down fighting

By the time she was 3, the yellowing "Missing" posters that had dotted Greenwich Village in the days after the attack had been replaced by tiles painted by schoolchildren and strung along a chain link fence near our home. When she was 4, the nearby hospital shut down, closing the emergency room where stretchers had lined up to wait for the survivors that never came.

The next year she started kindergarten at the school across the street. It was a hard day for me because the attacks had happened on the first day of school. A father shooting video of his kindergartener had given me the tape of his daughter's first-day smiles interrupted by the roar of a plane and a series of terrible images that replayed endlessly on TV. Our daughter wore a shiny pink raincoat on her big day as I took pictures of her disappearing into a sea of smiling schoolchildren marching into P.S. 41.

Later that year, I invited one of the firefighters I'd connected with on September 11 to visit her class. She didn't tell the kids about her work on September 11; she just taught them to stop, drop and roll if they ever smelled smoke.

Photos: Ground zero now

When she entered the first grade last year, the New York Public Schools had a curriculum about September 11 and we were warned to tell our children what had happened. The idea was to explain that some bad people had crashed planes into buildings and many of our neighbors had died. It seemed such a straightforward way to tell a story that ended with some 1,300 orphans, ensuing wars and economic mudslides. But it was enough for her. The school curriculum discussed how communities come together in times of tragedy and explains the role of flowers in grieving.

How to honor a Muslim first responder?

That same year, we took her to ground zero for the first time, to see what is now the 9/11 Memorial grounds. I had toured it with Michael Arad, the architect, for a CNN story before it opened, but it's amazing what details you notice when you see something through the eyes of a child. Every piece of that memorial seems to reflect the images of the Twin Towers -- the rectangular stones on the walkways, rectangular lamp posts and grates, the slatted benches and big rectangular grass pits.

She loves the sounds of the waterfalls in the tower footprints and the way the shadows bounce off the walls. It is a place of memory, not mourning, and it carries a sense of peace. The city has travelled such a distance and my 6-year-old understands what happened there, but doesn't know enough to feel sad.

We took her again a few months ago and pointed out how the names were cut out of the metal plates surrounding the footprints. I showed her the computers that let you print out cards of the victims. You can search them by name or place. We searched for people I knew and printed their cards.

Then we looked for people from countries with which we have a connection. We chose a Colombian, and went to pay our respects. A man beside us was tracing the name of his son onto a piece of thin white paper. This time she did look sad. So did I.

Today, Luna's teacher read them "Fireboat" -- the story of the John J. Harvey, a powerful 1931 retired Fire Department vessel called into action on September 11 to ferry away survivors and fight the fires. I remember that old, sad boat and how it rallied that day, pumping water for 80 hours when the fireplugs went dry. Her teacher said it was the only thing that seemed age appropriate. They wondered why someone would fly planes into buildings if they knew they were going to die. The teacher said that made zero sense to them. Then school ended and it was a beautiful day again.

How schools should handle 9/11 in class

On TV, the names of the dead were read and the polling booths got ready for another Primary. After school, some artists are taking over the school yard for a memorial event that will raise money to move the painted memorial tiles to a museum. Perhaps we will go to the school yard after I pick her up. It's just west of our house, north of the towers. You can tell how to get there by looking downtown.

Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Schools of Thought. Follow us on Twitter @CNNschools or on CNN Living on Facebook for the latest stories and to share your perspective.

How do you talk to the children in your life about tragedies? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

Part of complete coverage on
Remembering 9/11
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
A lot happened in response to the 9/11 terror attacks. Here is a look at what has worked, what hasn't and what has to happen now.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1252 GMT (2052 HKT)
When do the ordinary -- letters, gloves, wallets -- become extraordinary?
May 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
President Barack Obama marked the dedication of the September 11 Memorial Museum with families, survivors and rescuers at the site.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
The new North Tower is finally high enough to partially restore the skyline I used to see when I stepped outside my home in Greenwich Village.
September 12, 2012 -- Updated 1443 GMT (2243 HKT)
For years, Denise Scott and her three daughters thought they had certainty about their loved one's death on September 11, 2001.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1124 GMT (1924 HKT)
Even by MIT standards, says Tom Leighton, Danny Lewin was special.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1132 GMT (1932 HKT)
Some New Yorkers mark the anniversary of the September 11 attacks by going to a memorial service or observing a moment of silence.
September 8, 2014 -- Updated 1747 GMT (0147 HKT)
Click through our gallery to see how people are remembering the 9/11 anniversary across the nation.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1532 GMT (2332 HKT)
More than a decade after that dreadful day, 9/11 memories are still fresh for the mother who lost her son.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1500 GMT (2300 HKT)
Reggie Hilaire was a rookie cop on September 11, 2001. He worked at ground zero for 11 days beside his colleagues, not wearing a mask.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
Before September 11, 2001, the easy way to find true north was to use the towers as a reference point. After that day, the compass just spun, as the city struggled to figure out which way to go.
September 11, 2012 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
Two parents share how their youngest child, Peter, was murdered on September 11, 2001, while attending a conference at Windows on the World at the World Trade Center. He was 25 years old.
September 11, 2013 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
See the progress of buildings under construction at the site, as well as memorials.
September 8, 2014 -- Updated 1654 GMT (0054 HKT)
Here is some background on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Mohammed Hamdani's name isn't among the first responders that are on the 9/11 memorial. But on that day, the 23-year-old certified EMT skipped his job at a university research lab to rushed to the World Trade Center.
September 11, 2012 -- Updated 1350 GMT (2150 HKT)
In the few years immediately after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many travelers avoided flying on that day if they could help it.
October 29, 2012 -- Updated 1411 GMT (2211 HKT)
Marine Cpl. Juan Dominguez lost three limbs in an explosion in Afghanistan.
Today's fifth-graders were not even born on that day. For them, September 11 is history -- and often, a topic in their history class. And as of last fall, 21 states specifically mentioned 9/11 in their social studies standards.
Although countless Muslims have condemned the acts of 9/11 in the United States and worldwide, American Muslims became objects of suspicion.
September 12, 2012 -- Updated 0253 GMT (1053 HKT)
As memorials recall the victims of 9/11 across the country, our photo gallery will relfect the observed remembrances.