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A new generation learns about 9/11

September 14, 2011 - Everybody knows where they were ten years ago, on Sept. 11, 2001.

Yet students in Scott Maxfield's fifth-grade class at Orion Oaks Elementary were just babies then. They have no memories of that fateful day in U.S. history.

Thanks to some special visitors last week, however, they had a chance to ask plenty of questions.

In 2001, Maxfield's fifth-grade students wanted to help out some way in the hours and days after the tragedy. Like most of us, they felt helpless as emergency personnel risked their own lives to search for survivors. So the class wrote letters to the firefighters who responded to the World Trade Center attacks, providing words of encouragement and support.

Unfortunately, nobody really knew where to mail them.

WXYZ Channel 7 Reporter Carolyn Clifford visited the class and broadcast a story on its effort to make a difference. The ABC affiliate in New York picked it up and worked with the Detroit station to arrange the "Hope Book" of letters to be delivered to the firefighters at Ground Zero.

Three weeks later, to the shock of third-year teacher Maxfield, his students and school administrators, the class received a very grateful letter in return from a group of New York firefighters. It is framed in Maxfield's classroom today.

Clifford never forgot the story, either. "Some stories touch you more than others," the newswoman said. " 9/11 was very emotional day. I actually broke up on air. Every time I think of that day, I think about the fifth-grade class in Lake Orion."

As the tenth anniversary of the tragedy approached, Clifford wanted to do a follow-up piece to her original story – this time with Maxfield's new fifth graders. Better yet, two of his students from 2001 were happy to return to his class to talk on-camera and to the elementary students.

Last Thursday, college juniors Alex Forrest and Michelle Certain joined Clifford to meet Maxfield's students. They all watched the original news segment from ten years ago and Clifford, Maxfield and the older girls took turns sharing their memories from 9/11 and answering questions from the current fifth graders.

A lot of them asked how the older girls felt at the time. "We were scared at school and even more when we got home," Certain remembered. "I had an uncle who was flying that day." Forrest concurred, "We thought everyone was going to get attacked."

Maxfield not only remembers the stream of emails that updated teachers on what was going on, but his utter disbelief. He also said he will never forget the number of students who were pulled from school that day.

"I think 180 kids went home early," he said. "Families just wanted to be together."

The kids were determined to do something to help, however, and the letter-writing began.

"I almost forgot what we did back then," Forrest said. "But I guess we made a difference in somebody's life."

Maxfield could not agree more. "I will never forget 9/11 or the days that followed," he told Clifford and his current class. "I felt so powerless. The kids wanted to do something and I could not have written a better lesson plan. I was so proud of them and their letters."

The current crop of fifth-graders also was impressed. "I think it was very nice that you wrote letters to the people who risked their lives on 9/11," said student Cooper Isham. His classmate Jacob Yax agreed. "You made a difference and showed the world who we are," he added.

The two college-age girls were likewise touched by the fifth-graders and their general understanding of what happened ten years ago.

"These guys were babies when this happened, but they seem to have a concept of what was going on," Certain said. Forrest admitted she almost started crying listening to the current fifth graders talk about 9/11. "They sounded so intelligent," she said.

Maxfield and his older students also mentioned how they included smiley-face stickers in their letters and then saw them on the helmets of some of the fire fighters during news broadcasts from the World Trade Center site. The younger students thought that was neat.

Forrest also told the class that she traveled to New York and visited the site of the tragedy for the first time earlier this summer.

"It was very emotional," she said. "I can't believe it was ten years ago."

Hundreds of kids have passed through Maxfield's class since 2001 but, given the circumstances of 9/11 and its aftermath, he says he will always have fond memories of the students that lived through the event with him.

"It was a tough time for everyone," he said. "But who knew a simple act like writing letters would still resonate ten years later."

Last week, thanks to Clifford, a "favorite" teacher and Orion Oaks alums, a new generation of fifth-graders at Orion Oaks learned firsthand what it meant to be a young American in 2001.

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