Kaitlyn Hinkel has never lived in a time when America was not at war.
She was born Oct. 28, 2001, a month and half after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
By that point, the American military operations in Afghanistan entered their third week of what is now a 15-year war.
Last month, Hinkel entered Wheaton High School as a freshman.
“We would always have a minute of silence on 9/11,” Hinkel said. “I didn’t really understand when I was younger, but as I got older, I learned that it was a horrible event where thousands of people lost their lives.”
Hinkel is one of millions of Americans born shortly before or after Sept. 11, 2001, who are entering the final phase of their public school journey as the nation marks the 15th anniversary of that day’s tragic events, which claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Many local students recall learning about the attacks and their aftermath from teachers and family members.
“I think I was eight or nine years old when I began to actually comprehend 9/11 and why we took the time to recognize it at school,” said Robyn Fohouo, a sophomore at Richard Montgomery High School.
Born Feb. 28, 2001, Fohouo has lived in Silver Spring her entire life.
“At the time, my mom was at home at with me, watching the Today Show, and she saw the two planes crash into the World Trade Center live on television. My dad was at work and he was sent home.”
“I was eight when everything was explained to me,” said David Molot, another RM sophomore and lifelong resident of North Potomac.
“My dad said he believed it was a TV commercial for a horror film. When he checked the channel and realized it was news, he came and picked me up from my day care near D.C.
“I don’t know much about how my mom reacted. I’ve obviously been told it was a terrible event, but my third-grade teacher had a sister in the building. Luckily, she survived, but my teacher said it was very scary.”
Several students developed a critical attitude toward American foreign and domestic polices in the aftermath of the attacks.
Gillian Smith, a RM freshman, said she strongly disapproved of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Punishing innocent people and murdering communities for the acts of a few is always unacceptable,” Smith said. “Republicans are making this country a living hell for refugees from homes that we have ruined.”
Smith, who was born 11 days after Sept. 11, 2001, said there wasn’t room for her mother at the hospital to give birth because of an overflow of injured people.
She said she first was told about the attacks when she was six or seven years old.
“I believe that the wars should not have been against innocent people, as they did not know about the attacks and then thought we were the bad guys,” said Marlee San Sebastian, an RM sophomore, who was born on Sept. 7, 2001. San Sebastian said visiting the 9/11 exhibit at the Newseum in DC when she was in fifth grade was a key event in her comprehension of the day’s events.
Wendy Sparks, a chemistry teacher at Richard Montgomery who also serves as the freshman class sponsor, walked the campus of Iowa State University as a graduate student when the attacks occurred.
“I remember going to class that morning, having seen the tower footage on TV, listening to the radio on the way to campus and hearing a correspondent at the pentagon live as that building was hit by the third plane,” Sparks said.
“Everyone just stopped what they were doing that day and watched the footage.”
She said two other events in her life stand out to her at the same degree as the terrorist attacks in New York City and the Pentagon.
“The first was the Challenger explosion; I was in third grade watching the Challenger liftoff on TV, and will never forget the looks on the teachers’ and students’ faces as they tried to process what had just occurred,” Sparks said. “The second was the Columbine Massacre. I grew up in Jefferson County, Colorado, and knew people that had graduated from Columbine High School. I was an undergraduate at that time, I knew people who had been taught by the teacher who was murdered. For me the common thread was the feeling of helplessness and wondering, ‘Why?’”
Sparks said she believed it was important to educate future generations of students about 9/11 and its aftermath.
“I think for the students of today for which there is no personal family connection (either family in public service, geography, or military) these are definitely events that for most are lines in a text book,” Sparks said.
“Many that I spoke with do not have any personal link to the date, not even with someone sharing their feelings from the day. They learned about it in school. It made me take pause and think about the fact that I never asked my grandparents about where they were when Pearl Harbor happened. As painful as these incidents are for those that experience them, we do a disservice to the future generations if we don’t talk about them.”
Sparks said students may be naturally inclined not to speak about events they didn’t personally witness but said there is still another horror they may consider more relatable.
“They can read about it but until they actually experience some form of, it can’t be more. It would be interesting to ask these same students if they have stronger feelings and experiences with regards to the various school shootings that have occurred during their developmental years,” she said.