By Steve Jones
9:55 AM EDT, September 9, 2011
Michael Chrvala's current students were 3 years old on Sept. 11, 2001.
They didn't see the hijacked airliners crash into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, or the plane plow into Pentagon, and they didn't hear news reports about the jet that crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pa.
Nevertheless Chrvala, a Towson resident who has taught social studies in the Carroll County Public Schools for 18 years, takes every opportunity to teach his students at Shiloh Middle School in Hampstead about the significance of 9/11.
His classroom is filled with reminders of the day, including a poster with the photographs of every New York firefighter who died in the rescue effort, an American flag with the names of deceased emergency responders and a photograph of the burning towers contrasted against the bright, cloudless sky of the New York morning.
Chrvala, who grew up in Irvington, N.J., and hoped as a youth to become a firefighter, still vividly remembers the events of that fateful morning.
"My planning period was in the early morning, so I didn't have class until 10:15," he recalled of his teaching schedule on 9/11. "I went into (Shiloh's) main office, and someone said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I'm thinking that some dork rented a small plane and wanted to show someone where his office was."
When told that the plane was a jetliner, Chrvala quickly realized that the crash was not an accident.
"I came back to my classroom and turned on the television, and soon after that the south tower was attacked and came down," he said. " I not only thought of the thousands of people who had died, but also all of the firefighters. It was very personal."
Today, Chrvala stresses to his students that there are positive messages to take from the tragedy.
"For the kids today, you need to teach how the world changed that day," he said. "In so many ways, they don't undertand what was different. It's never going to be Sept. 10 again.
"Americans tend to look forward, and don't want to get dragged down by negative stuff," he said. "But I tell my students that while it was a terrible day, many of those responders went into those buildings to save people.
"Everyone was trying to get out of those buildings, but the firefighters and cops went in for one reason — to help.
"The legacy of Sept. 11 is not only about the losses, but the way America came together and the outpouring of support for the United States around the world."
Chrvala doesn't limit the learning to looking at photographs and discussing the tragedy in a comfortable classroom setting. For the past several years, he has taken many of his students to where it all happened.
He rewards 46 Shiloh students who are academically sucessful — and who complete an essay that is graded by a panel of teachers — with a trip to Ground Zero in New York. Other factors in the selection process include classroom attendance and behavior.
"It would be fantastic if we could get the entire eighth grade to go, but it's logistically impossible," he said.
"I want to make sure the students understand that this is something that happened to real people who just went to work that day," he said. "The students research and write about a lost firefighter, and make contact with the family members.
"What really hits home with them is when we go in the Tribute Museum and they see the artifacts," Chrvala said. "They observe things like a melted key ring, and a window from one of the planes. Last year, one of my students wondered about who was sitting by that window and what they saw."
The process of educating students about 9/11 almost didn't happen. On the morning after the attacks, teachers received an email from Carroll County Public Schools' central office instructing them not to discuss the events of the day with their students.
Instead, teachers were told to refer students to the guidance office.
"I went to my principal and said, 'You might have to fire me, because how do you not teach kids about what happened yesterday?' " Chrvala recalled. "People talk about how Sept. 11 was this generation's Pearl Harbor. You've got to teach it."
The school system changed its philosophy, and Chrvala is pleased that his students have shown interest in the topic. He also realizes that it may initially be difficult for them to grasp how the attack on America was unique.
"They're very attentive," Chrvala said. "They understand that the attacks were an act of war. They also realize that in past wars we always battled other nations. When we fought World War II, we were against the Nazis from Germany and the forces from Japan.
"But where is al-Qaeda? They're not from one place, and that is how the world has changed," he said.
Chrvala's fear of heights drove him away from firefighting as a potential career, and he became a teacher instead. He still thinks about how his life could have been different if he had joined one of the firehouses in northern New Jersey … or Manhattan.
"I learned about those guys that went into those towers," Chrvala said. " The memorial bracelet that I wear has the names of the 11 guys in FDNY Rescue 1 who were lost in the attack."
Chrvala, who lives in Towson with his wife and two children, will help to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this weekend.
On Sunday, Sept. 11, the Shiloh Middle School History Club is hosting the Never Forget 5k-one mile run at North Carroll High School, also in Hampstead.
"We wanted to do something for our local heroes," Chrvala said of Sunday's events. We're supporting the Hampstead fire company — people who put it on the line every time they go out."
Then, on Monday, Chrvala and his students will host "Remembering 9/11" at 6:30 p.m. at the Finksburg Library in Carroll County, discussing their journey to the trade center site and their meetings with families of those who died on 9/11.
Shiloh Middle is also involved in the Hats for Heroes project. To mark the 9/11 anniversary, students were invited to wear a hat during the school day in exchange for a $1 donation. Proceeds benefit the Fire Department of New York's Rescue 1 unit, and the Stephen Siller "Let Us Do Good" Children's Foundation, in honor of the fallen firefighter.
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