9/11 Flag Still Flies in America’s Schools

9_11_flag“In case you are wondering what that tingle at the back of your neck might be – that’s the feeling of what it means to be a part of a community.”

–Mike Koth, assistant principal, Northern Highlands (N.J.) Regional High School

Our school recently held a National 9/11 Flag Stitching Ceremony that included students, local dignitaries, first responders and members of the “New York Says Thank You Foundation.”

But it was the story of how the 9/11 flag got to this high school auditorium in Allendale, N.J., that had every student riveted.

When the Twin Towers fell, a flag on 90 West Street–right across the street from the wreckage—continued to fly. Soon, the proud stripes and stars became tattered and battled as the rough and twisted metal at Ground Zero. Charlie Vitchers, a construction superintendent for the cleanup, wasn’t having it. He sent a crew up to remove what was left of the flag and he then kept its tattered remains in storage for seven years.

Then, in 2008, a tornado leveled Greensburg, Kan. and Charlie, who was a construction volunteer for the “New York Says Thank You Foundation,” brought the flag shreds with him to the relief efforts. While some volunteers rebuilt Greensburg, others stitched the remains of the town’s surviving flags to the remains from the 9/11 flag. The shared act of stitching and reconstruction created a sacred bond while honoring all who had fallen.

But the story didn’t end there. Since 2008, the 9/11 flag has traveled to all 50 states, adding stitches from flags as diverse as the original Star Spangled Banner that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 to the flag that slain President Lincoln rested upon as he died. Members of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s family and survivors from the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood are among many who have added their stitches and hope to the banner.

“We invite first responders to place a stitch in the flag,” Mike Koth announced, with his voice full of emotion. The students and faculty – many of whom are first responders in their free time – rose and formed a line to become a part of this flag’s history. And it kept going during lunch as students and teachers gobbled down their sandwiches so that they too could touch and honor this flag.

Northern Highlands Regional High School was the first high school in New Jersey to receive the flag for a stitching ceremony, but the school isn’t going to let it end there. The ceremony launched the school’s commitment to the “9/12 Generation Project”- the first high school in our nation to do so – which will connect students to a variety of service learning opportunities so that they can focus on giving back.

Koth’s words at the ceremony highlighted the importance of standing together in a world where the United States is known for the solidarity and generosity of its people:“It’s why our constitution begins with the words ‘We the People,’ it’s why our flag was still there, and it’s no coincidence that people around the world refer to our nation as the US… they do so because it’s about us. Together we stand and together we can make a difference.” The presence of the 9/11 flag reminded the students and teachers at Northern Highlands Regional High School of the power of service, citizenship and compassion.

Maryann Woods-Murphy

Maryann Woods-Murphy is a 2011-2012 Teaching Ambassador Fellow, a 2012 America Achieves Fellow, and the 2010 New Jersey Teacher of the Year.

Read about Secretary Duncan’s message about the importance of national community service.