Final Cut: Teaching the “Shanksville Standard” with Help from Our Friends in North Plainfield, New Jersey

Written by Tony Mussari
Copyright 2011
Mussari Loftus Associates, LTD

Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.  Kevin Arnold The Wonder Years

Shortly after we returned from our final visit and screening in Shanksville, Kitch and I received a very kind note. It began with these words:

I am still in a state of euphoria about the entire trip. Thank you for everything that you did this past weekend.  I know that there was so much work involved, and that you both were exhausted by Sunday, but do know that every single person’s life was affected for the better.  I will never forget it!

What did we do in Shanksville on September 24?  It’s a fair question, and it has a simple answer.

We tried to teach a group of students from North Plainfield, New Jersey, what it means to be an American, what it means to reach up for the best edition of themselves, what it means to celebrate death in order to live a better life, what it takes to navigate the bumps in the road of life, and what it means to emulate what I like to call “the Shanksville Standard.”

Kitch and I met the students from North Plainfield on a bleak, rainy day at the People’s Memorial to the Heroes of Flight 93 in September 2009.  Dressed in their bright cheerleader uniforms, the students were carefully placing American flags on each of the 40 Angels of Freedom.  Instinctively, I knew there was something very special about these students and their thoughtful act of remembrance.

Since that day two years ago, North Plainfield has become like a second home for me. I enjoy working with the students. I admire the administrators, teachers and staff. I find the atmosphere in the high school to be infectious in all the ways that matter. Simply put, good things are happening in North Plainfield.

On this Saturday in September, we began our day with a visit to the permanent memorial. Then, we drove to Shanksville where Sue Strohm and Chuck Wagner, Flight 93 Ambassadors, talked about their experiences at the People’s Memorial to the Heroes of Flight 93.

During the afternoon break, the cheerleaders visited the only privately owned memorial in the Shanksville area.  In the peace and quiet of this renovated chapel, they left 40 American flags to honor the Heroes of Flight 93.

Kitch and I managed to find time to make our way to Ida’s Store. It is a gathering place at the entrance to the town.  While we were sitting on the bench in front of Ida’s, we received a welcoming wave from an Amish woman and her husband as they made their way along Main Street to the farm where they live.  It was a quintessential Shanksville moment.

Late in the afternoon, the cheerleaders returned to this town of 250 people. They joined friends, family, and former students for dinner.  Watching out of the corner of my eye, I saw people talking, laughing, sharing and listening to the sweet sounds of camaraderie.

After dinner, we talked about life, death and everything in between. It was a teaching moment, and an opportunity to help the students tie everything together.

Earlier in the day, I asked the students and their elders to think about the final moments of Flight 93. I asked them to think about what they would do if they were in a similar situation. A few members of our group shared their responses, and one person, Doug MacMillan, made it very clear that he did not know what he would have done. The honesty of his comment touched the heart of everyone in the room.

At the appointed time, we walked to the United Methodist Church for the screening of Shanksville, PA: A Place of Transformation.

Before the lights were dimmed, I shared two letters that celebrated Kitch’s courageous and successful battle with cancer.  Then, I read an article I wrote on September 11, 2011, specifically for the screening. It is titled “Thinking About America.”

It began with these words.

Standing in this place where I have been nine times before, I am filled with emotions I cannot explain.  It‘s a mixture of apprehension, exhilaration, gratitude, melancholy, and wonder.

On this day, we came here to celebrate death to learn about life. We came here to honor heroes who knew they were going to die. Heroes who refused to give up and give in. Heroes who used their final minutes of life to protect sacred national symbols and hundreds of people who would have died without their intervention.

The memory of their heroic revolt evokes admiration, affection and amazement.  It also evokes anger, dismay and a kind of emptiness that eats away at my soul.  It produces questions without answers and anguish without resolution.

“Thinking About America” ends with a challenge for the students from North Plainfield and Americans everywhere:

Ten years ago, we made a promise to tell the Shanksville story with dignity and class. For 3,650 days, we have remained true to that promise. In doing that, we have been changed in ways we never thought possible.

Today, Kitch and I look at our county through a different lens, and we measure ourselves and the people we meet against the “Shanksville Standard.”

Do we have the courage to do the right thing?

Do we have the will to do the honorable thing?

Do we have the fortitude to do the difficult thing with grace?

Do we have the insight necessary to understand that service to others is more rewarding than service to self?

Do we have the strength to pick ourselves up when we fall, and move forward with hope?

Do we have the wisdom to remember the everyday heroes of Flight 93?

Will we live a life of “loving kindness?”

These are difficult questions.  These are transformational questions.  The answers to these questions are deeply rooted in the heart, not the mind.

These are questions that have a high priority in the North Plainfield School District. Shanksville PA: A Place of Transformation documents this in the words spoken by the students about their country. More importantly, it records it in the actions of the cheerleaders who are taught the significance of service to others.

With the familiar music of the opening scene of the documentary resonating off the walls of the church, I walked to the back of the room. In my mind, the words of the father of Greek tragedy summarized what the students were about to see:

“Memory is the mother of all wisdom.”  Aeschylus

Digital photographs provided by Frank Pizzani, Skip Pulcrano, Chuck Wagner.

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