As a volunteer tour guide at the 9/11 Tribute Museum in lower Manhattan, Brenda Berkman has shared her firsthand account of that day almost 300 times—including with students whose EF Explore America class trips include a stop in New York. That’s because she believes in the power of personal stories to connect, to inspire, and to rebuild. Here, she shares more of her 9/11 first responder story with us.
Why do you think it’s important to share your story with students?
A lot of kids were really too young when 9/11 happened to be able to recall what was going on, and now, of course, we have many kids who weren’t even born then.
And an issue that’s personal to me is the fact that during the initial reporting of 9/11, women first responders were basically left out of the narrative. So I feel it’s important that students understand that women were down at the Trade Center, not only helping on 9/11 but over the many months afterward and doing exactly the same kinds of heroic activities as their male counterparts.
How do you think your own 9/11 story has changed over time?
As you gain perspective and as your emotions about an event get put in a larger context, your story is going to change because you’re adding on to it as you go through life. And when you look at the events of 9/11, it’s not just the day, the weeks, or even the months after the event that I think are worth understanding. I think it’s about the resiliency of people in response to terrible tragedy. Many of these people—even in the face of losing their immediate family members—have gone about responding in a way that they hope will make the world better. And that’s clearly entered into my narrative now.
Has sharing your story helped you heal?
Some people might think that it’s a little odd to constantly revisit a painful event, but I feel that I’m lucky enough to have survived 9/11 and many of my friends did not. I’m able to tell their stories, and able to honor their memories, by making people aware of what went on. And, you know, it’s so powerful for people to hear a personal story. We see over and over again, in the comments we get and the hugs and everything else, that people are really affected by it and remember the personal accounts perhaps more than they would if they read it in a book somewhere.
What do you hope students take away from their time with you?
I hope they will realize that people have had really hard challenges and have continued on despite these hardships. Sometimes the worst thing that could happen to you turns out to be something that really can change your life for the better. Have hope that whatever happens, it’s not going to keep you from fully living your life and making a difference in a positive way.
Editor’s note (2022): This piece has been updated for clarity, accuracy, and relevance.
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