By Sue Botos
The 9/11 memorial sits quietly near the Rocky River Middle School office. It offers a contrast to the laughing, chattering students surging out of the nearby music wing between classes. None of these sixth-, seventh- or eighth-graders probably remember the terrorist attacks that forever changed the country. The youngest were not yet born, and the oldest were toddlers on Sept. 11, 2001. However, through the memorial, and some “living history” lessons, teachers and staff make certain that students understand the impact of that day.
According to Principal Megan Rose, the idea for the memorial, which includes a piece of steel from the World Trade Center, grew from a tulip garden, planted by students in October 2001 at the corner of Lakeview and Riverview avenues. “Originally, there were 6,000 tulips. Rocky River Middle School students and staff planted the garden along with the fire department,” Rose noted, adding that firefighters again assisted with replanting the bulbs last fall.
“In the summer of 2002, Rocky River firefighter Joe Yankel presented an engraved bell to express their appreciation for the tulip garden,” Rose added.
Thinking of a way to expand the memorial, which originally was to be constructed outside in the flower bed, then-Principal David Root found out that a limited number of steel pieces from the fallen World Trade Center were being made available for memorial purposes. He then wrote and requested one for the school.
Rose said that there were three stipulations to receiving the metal. “It must never be sold. It can’t be used for profit, and it must always be displayed as a memorial,” she stated.
One year after the attacks, in September 2002, representatives from the school traveled to New York City to select a portion of steel for the memorial. “It originally was going to be outside in the tulip garden, but cost brought it inside,” Rose noted. She said that students and staff raised about $6,000. However, the outside display would have cost around $50,000, which would include a protective granite casing for the steel piece.
Eventually, $18,000 was collected, which included enough funds for a 9/11 scholarship for a Rocky River student headed into firefighting or other first-responder service.
Dedicated on Sept. 26, 2007, the memorial includes the bell on one side, and reflections by students Liz Gallagher (class of 2006), Molly Stark (class of 2007) and Olivia Smith (class of 2008) on the right. In the center, in its protective case, is the twisted metal piece.
“We’re lucky to have this. There were only about 120 pieces available,” Rose stated.
New York City firefighter Salvatore D’Agostino, who survived the collapse of the World Trade Center’s north tower, was the featured speaker at the ceremony.
Backing up the pieces is a three-part triptych designed by Brandon Juhasz, husband of social studies teacher Chandra Juhasz. Behind the bell is the image of the Pentagon, a portion of which was destroyed by a hijacked plane. In the center are the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and backing the student reflections is an outline of the state of Pennsylvania, with the spot where passengers overcame hijackers, causing the plane to crash, highlighted.
As a connection to the tulip garden, the flowers are etched into the protective glass in front of the display, and rain down in the triptych scenes.
A banner to the right of the display, also designed by Juhasz, lists the names of the 2,977 victims, including 343 firefighters, who died in the Pentagon, New York and Pennsylvania.
“It’s even more important to remember this because of the age of the students,” Rose commented, adding that for the sixth-graders, most of whom were born in 2002, 9/11 is truly a historical lesson. She said that social studies teachers in each grade coordinate lesson plans and, each year, World Trade Center survivor George Sleigh gives a presentation to the whole school about his experience, sharing images of the towers and where he was when the hijacked plane hit it.
“It’s a moving experience, but impactful,” said Rose of the presentation that quiets even a room full of tweens and young teens. “There’s dead silence. You can hear a pin drop. The students are very respectful. To have someone who was actually there speak really makes an impact,” she said.
A guest book in front of the memorial invites visitors, staff and students to share their impressions. The first entry in 2007 by Root reads, “Finally, a lasting memorial the kids wanted.”