The lingering coronavirus outbreak may have kept Cedar Grove High School students out of their school and in front of their laptops at home, but that didn’t stop their efforts to keep an annual tradition alive: Creating a somber, but colorful, memorial honoring the victims of the 9/11 terror attacks.
Students at the school have spent several days planting a U.S. flag for each American life lost in the attacks, and flags representing the home nations of foreign nationals who perished in the attacks. In all, the lawn is being sprinkled with 2,977 flags honoring the victims and helping to educate students about the depth of the fateful day in history 19 years ago.
Inspired by the Waves of Flags Display at Pepperdine University in California, Cedar Grove Board of Education Vice President David Schoner created “Cedar Grove Waves” in an attempt to honor and remember the lives lost on 9/11.
“It was something that stayed with me for years,” Schoner said after seeing the Pepperdine display for the first time nearly a decade ago.
In the years afterward, Schoner believed that many younger students didn’t truly have a firm understanding of just how serious the attacks and their effects were.
“They really didn’t grasp or understand the magnitude of that day,” Schoner said about the genesis of the high school memorial. “I started thinking, ‘We’re a very visual society, so let’s do something like (Pepperdine’s display) at Cedar Grove and call it Cedar Grove Waves’ “.
After raising funds through the community, Schoner was ready to put his plan into motion, organizing the display for each of the last six years.
The yearly tradition continues on, having students who weren’t yet born when the terror attacks occurred attend a 20-minute seminar discussing the physical and emotional tolls caused by the attacks before planting flags honoring the victims.
“When you look back on it, we made a promise to those people that day that we would never forget them,” Schoner said. “As time goes on, as human beings with a human condition, you let things go. And this is about making sure that we remember them.
“Because as human beings we do that,” he added. “And I don’t mean that in a bad way, but you have to let things go. So, maybe we get over the grieving process, but at the same time, we really owe it to the victims to remember them.”
Despite students attending school virtually as a result of the pandemic, students in 9th through 12th grade have been allowed to participate in the 2020 memorial, arriving to contribute to the construction of the display as well as pay respects to those lost.
Each flag is placed in a display that has the name of a person who died as a result of the attacks, with the plots placed in alphabetical order so people in the community who lost a loved one can find the tribute specifically for that person.
“Everyone wants to find the name of the person that they knew or heard of,” Schoner said. “People want that connection.”
After the first year of the display featured a flag for each person killed, Schoner added the alphabetized nameplates.
“When the students go outside and put the flags in the ground, there’s more of a personal connection because there’s a name attached to it,” he said.
The entire process of installing the display takes about two weeks to complete, with the school’s front lawn being divided into 18-inch by 18-inch grids before the nameplates are placed in each square.
“When you see the magnitude of all the flags, it takes your breath away,” Schoner said. “People talk about it and it stays with them.”
New this year, the high school is also planting two trees, honoring two members of the Cedar Grove community who lost their lives after 9/11.
Though the flags will be removed after two weeks, Cedar Grove will remain the site of a permanent 9/11 memorial, displaying a piece of metal recovered from the World Trade Center wreckage donated by the Port Authority PBA and the World Trade Center Memorial Fund in 2018.
“People stop and look at it and pay attention to it,” Schoner said about the permanent memorial, which sits outside the auditorium entrance. “It’s about keeping that conversation going. Adults are going to keep the conversation going, but we want to keep it going with young people.
“If kids are walking into that auditorium and see the monument and they ask a question about it and the parent tells them what was going on, then I consider this very successful,” he added.
With the outbreak of COVID-19 and the resulting restrictions, Schoner received a magnitude of phone calls and emails asking if the display would return this year.
“In my mind, we would never not do it,” the school board official said. “I do believe that kids, students, society, while being conscious of social distancing, social protocols, you also need some sort of normalcy and to come back to some sort of structure.
“I don’t mean that all in a bad way, I mean we need that as a society,” he added. “We need to learn to live with COVID in a responsible way. But we can’t stop all the things that we do and just completely give into it.”
The terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 killed 2,753 people in New York City and 2,977 overall, when hijacked planes slammed into the twin towers, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
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