The Man Who Walked Between The Towers

I’ve been quiet here partly because we’ve been gone for much of the summer, but also because we’ve been slowly figuring out what community service and civic life mean for our young kids now that the immediate energy and opportunity of the election has passed. These are sobering times, and getting involved certainly requires more effort. But the process of educating young children is always embedded in the family, and for the very youngest, I’ve been reminded that it can be embedded in play.

Last year we discovered the excellent picture book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein.  It’s a biography of Phillipe Petit, which captures all the drama and poetry of his career and its culminating walk between the towers of the World Trade Center.  My children were both captivated by it, especially Finn, who spent one morning reconstructing a cardboard model  of the site.

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We also made the decision to show them both Man on Wire, which Ella astutely realized “was just like detective movie” in the first minutes.  And indeed, it is, and they were both mesmerized by the film and its images. (There is definitely one questionable, celebratory naked scene at the end, but it passed right by them while we held our breath.)   But  because of its context and visual imagery, the film is also for the astute adult observer, not simply an homage to the poetry and majesty of Petit’s accomplishment, but a requiem for the Towers and those who perished there.   My children didn’t realize this exactly, of course, but they did have a sense, watching it,  that something had once been that no longer was.

The book, written post September 11,  states simply that the Towers no longer exist.  When we read it to Finn, we explained exactly why.  The story offered me another opportunity to discuss the tragedy, and terrorism, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with Ella.   Everyone in my family lost a friend or a colleague or a childhood acquaintance in the Towers, so the tragedy is immediate and personal for us.

And so, when we visited the east coast this summer, we drove by the Pit, as some New Yorkers call the site of Ground Zero, on our way to Brooklyn, and they both got to see the tremendous scale of the event.  We didn’t stop, but it was sad and satisfying that they got to see something of the reality of it, and that they could begin to understand some of its hard significance.  It’s a lot for a small child, I know.  It’s a lot for me, and for all of us. But it is as much a part of their world as endangered panda bears and polluted lakes, and this book, and that movie, and the actual site are ways that begin to make it real and meaningful.  They are ways slowly to begin the hard and difficult discussion about what happened and why and where we are now and what might come next.

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