Towers Falling is a wonderful story that takes place around the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, and is a sensitive yet informative tool for teaching students about the tragic and important time in the history of the United States.
During the summer, Deja’s family moved into Avalon Family Residence, a homeless shelter with a fancy name, but it was anything but fancy. Deja and her family, Ma, Pop, little brother Ray, and little sister Leda share a single room. Pop is always in bed and Ma is always at work, which leaves Deja in charge of her siblings most of the time. When school starts, Deja is once again the new girl, this time at the Brooklyn Collective Elementary School, she doesn’t want to fit in. She doesn’t want to be there. Her teacher, Miss Garcia, seems nervous but friendly, and tells the class that the curriculum will be new and progressive this year, but Deja doesn’t quite understand what that means. All she can think about is how she doesn’t have a lunch, and how she hopes they won’t have to write an essay about summer vacation.
On the first day of school, Deja meets Ben, another new kid with glasses and a short haircut, and Sabeen, a friendly girl who always wears a scarf around her head. They give her some of their lunches and don’t care that she’s homeless; although Deja fought it at first, she comes to realize that the two kids want to be her friend, and she’s okay with that. When the class begins to learn about a historical event that happened 15 years ago on September 11th, Deja has no idea what she is talking about. Towers falling? Terrorists? What is this all about, and how does it impact me, she wonders. She doesn't understand why they had to learn about something so long ago. Miss Garcia works with the class to understand how, even though everyone is different, we are all part of a small social unit that is part of a bigger social unit, and so on. Everyone in the classroom is part of New York, which is part of America, and that is a connection that is shared by all in the classroom.
When Pop learns that the school is teaching about the events that happened on 9/11, he comes to the school to talk to Miss Garcia, and threatens to take Deja out of Brooklyn Collective. Deja is devastated and does not want to leave her friends, her social unit, and Miss Garcia. She wants to learn about September 11th, even if her father doesn’t want her to. When Deja leaves school that day, she realizes that her father changed his mind, but he still refuses to talk about the towers and what happened that day. When she has a moment alone in the room, Deja opens the suitcase that she always sees her father carrying. Inside of it is a set of work clothes, a broken flashlight, a walkie talkie, a picture of her father and two other men, a dusty wallet, and a name tag. When Deja sees the name tag she finally understands: her father worked in one of the towers. He was there that day. He saw everything. Deja put the suitcase away and decided not to mention the towers again, for she didn’t want to further upset her father.
Unable to get the image of the video that Ben had shown her days ago out of her head, Deja decides she simply has to visit the site where the towers once stood. She and Ben skip school and take the subway to the memorial. While there, Deja sees many people grieving, and even hears some of the stories that people have to share. She is drawn to the water. She is drawn to the names. She understands now and she wants to see more. When a police officer asks Deja and Ben if they are with an adult, the two kids run back to the subway and head home.
When she returns home, Pop is waiting for her. He isn’t mad, he is worried. He is ready to tell Deja his story. Deja learns that her father was a security guard in the North Tower when the planes hit, and that the two men in the picture were his friends and coworkers. His friends went up the elevator to try to help people, while Pop took the stairs, a decision that ended up saving his life. Pop told Deja about how he helped an old woman down the stairwell, and that they were at the very bottom when the North Tower collapsed all around them. It was the most horrible thing anyone could ever experience, and he didn’t think Deja was old enough to know the details of that day. In fact, he didn’t think anyone was old enough to know the details, but he knew it had to be shared. Pop’s guilt over not being able to help his friends and the people inside the tower that day had been eating away at him for fifteen years, and now, because of that guilt, he is sick and depressed and unable to care for his own family. Deja sees her father in a new light, and thinks of him as a hero. She tells her father that he will get better, things will get better.
Deja and her family begin to put themselves back together again. They will move into a subsidized apartment, which isn’t great, but certainly a step in the right direction. Deja and her friends are closer than ever, and she feels like she has a true social unit that she can count on. Deja tells her father that she would like to go to the 9/11 Memorial with him someday, and really take the time to see it with him. She knows that someday they will.
September 11th is a very difficult subject to teach children. Like Deja’s father, teachers and parents grapple with the question, at what age is it okay to tell children about what took place on that beautiful, sunny September morning? At what age is it okay to expose them to such a tragedy? The answer is still unclear, but Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Towers Falling is undeniably the perfect resource for any classroom that is taking on this difficult subject. It is a historical fiction novel that brings people together during a time when the goal was to tear them apart.
Explain at the outset that you're going to talk about a key historical event. Insist that it's a serious subject that can make others feel sad or confused. Encourage the students to listen carefully and be respectful while discussing historical events as they hold a lot of significance for the country as well as the people.
Give a condensed account of what happened. Mention how terrorists hijacked aircraft and crashed them into Washington, D.C., and New York City towers due to which many people lost their lives and many others experienced traumas and injuries. Before providing these details, make sure students are aware of what hijacking, terrorists, crashes, and attacks mean as they are a significant part of the story.
Talk about the courageous emergency personnel, firemen, police officers, and regular individuals who provided assistance both during and after the attacks. Ask the students what is the first thing that happens in the course of an emergency and how they should approach such a situation. Encourage them to learn about how to act in such situations and how they can help themselves and other people.
Talk about the value of being nice and helpful to one another, particularly in trying circumstances. Encourage the students to be sensitive while discussing these topics with other people and try to understand their points of view.
Tell the students that they can ask any questions they want and clear their confusion. Naturally, younger students will have a lot of questions regarding this event, so teachers can address all questions in a welcoming manner so students don’t hesitate. Reflect on all the information that students have learned so far and talk about how they feel after learning this information.
While Towers Falling does take place during a real time in history, the story itself is fictional. However, the 9/11 attacks impacted many people in the way that the characters in this story were impacted.
When Deja opens her father’s suitcase, she discovers all kinds of things that he saved from 9/11 such as: work clothes, a broken flashlight, a name tag, and a picture of her father with two other men.
After Ben shows Deja a video of the attack, and after seeing the contents of her father’s suitcase, Deja decides she must see the site for herself.