Leslie Rodriquez was 2 years old on Sept. 11, 2001, when she was sent home from day care in the swirl of the day’s catastrophic events. In the decade since, that day meant little more to her than a hazy historical reference.
“In fourth or fifth grades, we would have a moment of silence,” she said. “And then move on with the rest of our day.”
Leslie is now 13 and an eighth grader at William McKinley Intermediate School 259 in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. Her school has made Sept. 11 the theme for the newest section of a continuing mural that students started in 2006.
These days, husky firefighters and still-grieving relatives visit the mural with Leslie as their tour guide. What she, like her fellow students, can explain best about the day of the terrorist attacks, though, is the human responses to Sept. 11.
“Every time we talk to people, they tell us that they have overcome and moved on, but we see that you can never put it completely in the past,” said Maham Abbas, 14, also an eighth grader. "But it's like a scratch. Even though it heals, the scar is still there."
That level of thinking is exactly what Thomas J. Buxton, a seventh-grade English teacher, was aiming for when he proposed Sept. 11 as this year’s theme. The idea came to him after a student referred to what happened that day as “an accident.”
As he told a gathering of firefighters, police officers, Army soldiers, students and parents in a dedication ceremony at the school on Wednesday, he realized that Sept. 11 was too painful for many New Yorkers to discuss. So many of the children of the city have little knowledge of what happened or what it means.
The principal, Janice Geary, said the school’s history textbooks had little on the subject. The Sept. 11 passage is little more than a chronology of the day.
Students, staff and alumni worked on the mural before, during and after school, even on Saturdays, to illustrate the theme in paintings inspired by, and incorporating, classic artwork.
This year, as in the past, students immersed themselves in their subject, making design changes as they learned more about the day, said Roma Karas, the art teacher who oversaw the mural.
The mural starts outside double doors, which are framed with a painting of the Battery Park tunnel because, as the student tour guides explained, that was where many firefighters left their vehicles to race to the World Trade Center.
In scenes inspired by the work of artists like Michelangelo and Donatello, the students substituted first responders for the original subjects.
There is a section devoted to the New York skyline, with the twin towers depicted with a ghostly glow; a tour guide said that was to show that “even though they are not there physically, they are always with us spiritually.”
The name of every victim is there — many inscribed painstakingly in white paint by relatives and other guests who have been meeting with the students to share stories. Interspersed with paintings and names are poems written by the students.
“Fifteen years from now,” said Kelly Perez, 12, a seventh grader, “we’re going to look back, and other people will look at it, and they’re going to get what we get.”