Forest Hills — As he and his classmates watched “United 93,” Thomas Rutherford initially felt the minute-by-minute depiction of the hijacking 20 years ago of the commercial U.S. airplane was, well, a little slow.
But as he recalled the last 10 minutes of the film, it sunk in that the real-time depiction achieved its goal.
“I was, like, gripping on my thighs, like, sweating almost,” Thomas said. “I wanted to just step into the movie and help out or something. It seemed like the scenes where panic arose were good for the terror aspect but lasted far too long from a film standpoint… but then again, that’s what actually happened, so I guess it did work. It’s so hard for me to look at.”
Watching the film and discussing its implications on Friday wrapped up a week-long lesson led by Forest Hills Central High School teacher Kyle Carhart and student teacher Jason Majerle on the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York City, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
“I didn’t realize before I watched this how long (the passengers) knew the plane was hijacked before it crashed. I thought they had no idea,” senior Mattie Sexton said. “I didn’t realize they knew that whole time, which makes it 10 times worse.”
History vs. Hollywood
It was part of the History vs. Hollywood class, a semester-long look at the historical accuracy of nearly 20 films. For the week including Sept. 11, they led the 28 mostly senior students in discussions of the buildup to that day, watched the movie, identified what was historically accurate and the ethics of films such as that one, which required speculation. They also looked at connections that can be made from 9/11 to current events.
As with all films studied in the class, students were charged to write a blog post-slash-review of the film and its historical merits, as well as their personal thoughts.
“We saw an opportunity to honor the heroes of 9/11 as well as teach about the impacts of the tragedy,” Majerle said. “The goal is for them to learn a lot of history, as well as how movies affect history and the ethics of creating a historical movie.”
“United 93” depicted aviation personnel and passengers as accurately as filmmakers could via records, voicemails and recollections by those who received phone calls from passengers who died in the crash. It was those personal stories, Majerle said, that provided “a way to get bottom-up vs. top-down history” of the event.
“I knew about the crash, but the movie gave a perspective of what they all actually went through,” junior Averie Zaschak said.
Added Thomas: “Seeing that they used the actual voicemails and tried to be that accurate really made it hit harder, definitely.”
Even though the Central High students weren’t alive when 9/11 occurred, they aren’t without connections.
Senior Brynn Schanski said her mom’s uncle was supposed to be at work in the Pentagon but had an appointment that kept him out of the building that day.
Senior Grace Weisbrodt said her mom was a second-grade teacher in 2001. “I think one of her students had a grandfather who was in one of the World Trade Center buildings.”
Carhart was a Central High senior himself when the 9/11 attacks occurred. “I remember my parents talked about remembering where they were when the Kennedy assasination happened, and before 9/11 I just couldn’t grasp the reality of living through something that affected so many people.”
Majerle was 3 in 2001. “My dad is a teacher, and he talks about how school basically stopped that day,” he said. “All of my experiences of 9/11 are through people that I know.”
But Majerle remembers the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012, and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.
He told his students — who themselves are living during a global pandemic and will one day be able to share their experience with younger generations — that the biggest difference between those and today’s tragedies is that people today “just have constant information at our fingertips. It was the chaos of not knowing what was happening. This movie made that very easy to understand.”
Carhart said he hoped his students would not know a tragedy the scale of 9/11, when so many lives were inexplicably lost.
And then came a global pandemic.
“One of our other teachers was saying this morning that he knew he would be teaching about 9/11 to people who weren’t even alive during 9/11,” Mattie said, “and that would be us one day, teaching kids about (what life was like) during COVID.”