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Randall Middle helps students commemorate, connect to 9/11

LITHIA — Establishing an emotional connection to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for middle school students isn't an easy feat considering they were not alive to watch in horror as the Twin Towers fell.

Randall Middle School teachers, after years of trial and error, think they've found a way – teach the students about the victims' lives.

On Monday, students were busy constructing a memorial display containing 2,977 markers for that tragic day's victims. The memorial, which had to be postponed this year because of Hurricane Irma, has been organized through the Randall Area Youth Service Council's service-learning program since 2009.

The American flag-shaped, laminated memorials contain biographies of almost every individual who died that day. The students will continue to research the victims until every marker contains information.

"There are some kids who do start out like, 'Well, what do I care, that's 16 years ago,'" said social studies teacher Kristy Verdi. "I believe our goal is, and is going to move toward just tolerance in general. All of these acts, and even with the political tensions we have in this country, whatever they may be, it's all got to be a message to these kids that they've got to be tolerant of other people and accepting, not necessarily in ideology, but as human beings and respect for human life."

Verdi teaches the events of that day by showing pictures of what unfolded. It's not to invoke fear, she said, but the teacher wants her students to see the images that are burned into her brain.

"Every time, even though I try, I get emotional. And, I think that helps them realize that Dr. Verdi was alive when this happened," she said. "It's so hard to communicate, but you have to share those images and say, 'What do we do about this? How can we prevent these kinds of things from happening again?' That needs to be our direction."

The idea came about when a student in Verdi's class moved to Randall from New Jersey. At the time of the attacks, Verdi said, the student was only 2 or 3 years old, but had distinct memories of that day. It wasn't until the teacher and student began talking about what to do to commemorate Patriot Day that the student realized most of his classmates had no clue why the day was honored.

Now, teachers make sure every student knows the significance of that day.

"As you learned information about [the victims], you realize that they were just normal, average people that didn't expect anything was going to happen, but it happened," said seventh grader Sydney Walters. "It makes it kind of scary because you never knew it was going to be, how it was going to happen at that time and place.

"Since we didn't experience it, we didn't have a connection to it like the teachers might have or our parents … and it's brought like a frame of mind that we should be thankful for what we do have and who we have now."

The project started with simple stars on the school's front lawn and grew in size into the American flag markers. For this year's project, Newland Communities purchased durable pre-colored markers and plastic stakes to make the project more sustainable and easier to assemble.

This year the students also added badges on the memorial makers dedicated to the first responders who died during the attacks.

In addition, they added markers for the eight victims of the Oct. 31 truck attack on a bike path in Manhattan. The attack, along with upcoming Veterans Day, was the deciding factors in when to put up the display.

Once the memorial was in place, the public was invited to tour it and bring materials for care packages to be sent to troops overseas or in veterans' hospitals. The memorial was planned to be taken down on Nov. 8 after a Veterans Day ceremony at the school.

"You know, if you don't know the memory, you'll never learn the memory," said Charlie Plumb, a Vietnam veteran with the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne division as he dropped off a donation. "It's about the sanctity of life."

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