Remembering 9/11 with John Adams and “Souls”

2019 is the 18th anniversary of September 11, 2001.

For my generation it was our “when and where were you” historical marker of our youth.


I was a 6th grader in history class when each plane struck a World Trade Center tower. We learned of the terrorist attack when another teacher came to the door and whispered the news. My history teacher’s face was distraught as she grabbed the TV remote and turned on the large, box TV in the corner of the classroom. She gasped as all of us saw that the Pentagon was covered in dark, black and gray smoke. Soon an announcement came on and instructed all teachers to turn off the TV and return to the day’s tasks.

The rest of the school day was a blur as none of us in middle school understood what happened and the teachers weren’t allowed to explain. When I got home from school, my neighborhood was in a frozen state. Everyone was glued to the TV as I peddled around to deliver the newspaper which was covered in images of the day’s devastating events in New York City, Washington D.C., and Shanksville, PA.


Throughout my teaching career my students have never really remembered 9/11 and this year my oldest students were either born in 2001 or 2002. The way that I remember and invite my students to consider the impact of the day is by listening to John Adams’s piece, “On the Transmigration of Souls.”

John Adams composed “On the Transmigration of Souls” for orchestra, chorus, and children’s choir along with sections of pre-recorded tape to memorialize the day and its impact. It was commissioned for and premiered by the New York Philharmonic in September of 2002.

I dedicate one of my commutes to or from school to listen to the piece in it’s entirety. John Adams encourages listeners to consider the physical transmigration of souls that occurred on the day, but to also consider the transmigration that soul of the United States of America from that day forward.

I invite my students to listen to the piece in its entirety on their own time and in a place where they can take note of what they hear and feel. I encourage them to consider the piece’s purpose and meaning. I then invite my students to write about and reflect on what they heard, the feelings that they felt, and/or the elements of the piece that Adams used to communicate the transmigration of souls from that fateful day.

The assignment is extra credit due to the piece’s heavy nature and time I encourage students to take with the piece and the reflection. Students that have listened to and completed the reflection have found the piece to be extremely powerful and a worthwhile activity for consideration of the impact that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have had on people’s lives and U.S. history.

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One thought

  1. What a powerful way to reflect. I’m planning to listen later, when I can give my full attention in a safe place to break down if necessary. Thanks for being a teacher students need.

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