The world was forever changed on September 11, 2001. But one of the day’s most iconic images didn’t feature a building in flames or people running in fear – it was a simple classroom picture of then-President George W. Bush, picture book in hand in front of smiling youngsters.
Almost 20 years after that fateful day, a new Canadian documentary explores what the children in that photo are up to now as adults, delivering what is more of a look at the American Dream and socio-economics in a predominantly African-American and Latino community than on that historic moment in time. (However minimal in the documentary, it should be noted that there are visuals of the plane slamming into the second tower of the World Trade Center, an image that is still as jarring and shocking as ever).
The bright and sunny morning was a big day for the 16 kids at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. A group of six and seven-year-olds who were best readers in a school with an admirably successful reading program were selected to read a story to Bush as part of a national literacy campaign. Cameras in the classroom captured the fateful moment in which Bush learned about the terrorist attack in New York City.
Shifting nervously and staring blankly as the reading of The Pet Goat continued, the moment is the last of the “before” time, the calm before the storm.
Now, filmmaker Elizabeth St. Philip is tracking down those children from that classroom to see how their lives have been impacted by that very moment.
Interviews with the kids – who are now all in their mid-twenties – paint a diverse portrait of individuals whose lives were shaped by 9/11. Why were some so successful, becoming entrepreneurs, continuing on to college and others who fell on hard times, lured by fast money and crime? Bush came to speak to them because they represented the future and achieving the American Dream was not within reach for all of them.
St. Philips’ documentary explores a community that is literally on the other side of the tracks, segregated from a more-prosperous mostly-white area of Sarasota. Following the former students for a year, 9/11 Kids explores the importance of education, relationship with law enforcement within African-American communities and undercurrents of tension, inequality, crime and racism that has led to stark division within the U.S.
While there could be plenty of doom and gloom to be found with the state of U.S. affairs, 9/11 Kids gives an overall message of hope. It’s impossible to watch 9/11 Kids without recalling your own memories of school, especially with teacher Kay Daniels reminiscing about her pupils with a huge smile on her face and tears in her eyes. A surrogate mother who comforted her classroom with a song of hope in the aftermath of September 11, Daniels’ compassion helped shaped their lives well beyond the walls of the classroom.
Seeing the smiles on the now-adult faces as they recall their schoolyard days and teacher, the important foundation their education had on shaping their future, and how despite some incredible hardships for a few, these kids are coming through their adversity with enduring optimism. It’s a good lesson for all of us.
With the pandemic, Hot Docs has moved online. In partnership with CBC, 9/11 Kids is one of the festival’s selections currently available on CBC Gem for free. See what else is part of the free line-up here.