The 9/11 Exhibit offers a students’-eye view of one of our worst days as a nation. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

Just as many can still remember exactly where they were Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the fall of the World Trade Center is seared in the memories of those who were alive to witness it – even if some weren’t quite old enough at the time to fully grasp the tragedy. To help them process the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Sally McPartlin, the art teacher at River Forest’s Roosevelt Middle School, asked her eighth-grade students to illustrate their emotions.

“I just put paper and markers out and said, ‘Draw how you feel about the whole thing,’” she recalled. “Everyone’s emotions came out.”

McPartlin compiled all that came out of the art therapy exercise into four powerful collages that are now on display at the Oak Park River Forest Museum to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the terrorist attack that devastated the nation. The exhibit is on display through the end of October.

When viewed, the collages provide an intimate look into the adolescent minds of their creators as they struggled to make sense of the incomprehensible while undergoing the complicated transition from child to adult. 

“It was a very traumatic thing to experience, even from afar,” said museum operations manager Rachel Berlinski. 

More than the sum of their parts, the collages have stark themes ranging from solemn patriotism to cataclysm. The young artists’ interpretation of the attack ranged from the abstract to the highly literal. American flags are prevalent across the pieces, but the macabre image of people jumping from the twin towers, engulfed in flames stands out. The words “CONFUSION,” “HATE” and “FEAR” are splashed across the pictures in contrast to such phrases, “United we stand,” and “I pledge allegiance,” which are also featured. 

“They’re very impactful,” said the art teacher, now retired.

McPartlin donated the collages to the museum about three years ago, after hanging onto them for quite some time, finding herself unable to dispose of them. 

“I just didn’t have the heart to get rid of them,” she said.

Now a museum exhibit, the collages afford those who lived through the terrorist attack a chance to reflect on that fateful Tuesday. It’s a particularly moving experience for the children, now adults, who remember sitting in school as news broke that a passenger jet had roared into the north tower of the World Trade Center followed by a second into the south tower. 

“As a kid, it’s kind of funny what you remember, but this is the kind of thing you can’t forget,” said Berlinksi, who was in second grade at the time of the attack.

For those born in a post-9/11 United States, the exhibit provides an important learning opportunity, one safe enough to share with children. The collages have preserved the pain, confusion and fear that was felt across the nation, hundreds of miles away from where the twin towers once stood in New York City.  

“We’re looking at these pieces for the first time historically and saying, what are our firsthand experiences?” said Berlinksi. “How are we going to be talking about this event 100 years from now?”

If you go…

The exhibit is available with the price of general admission at the Oak Park River Forest Museum through the end of October. The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. with admission costing $5 for Oak Park and River Forest residents. Admission costs $7 for non-residents. Kids under seven are free. 

The museum is located at 129 Lake St.

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