September 11, 2010

Do you remember where you were when you found out about... ?

Thinking over the big single events whose news was widely broadcast, I can only remember the ones that happened once I hit puberty. Perhaps the larger social world isn't so important to us as children, when we're still fairly solitary and socially retarded.

I was barely alive when John Lennon was killed or when Reagan was shot. I have no memory at all of Black Monday, the Tiananmen Square massacre, or the Berlin Wall falling. I have a vague memory of the Rodney King beating, although neither that nor the later L.A. riots stick so strongly that I remember exactly when and where I heard the news.

The first one that I recall pretty clearly is Kurt Cobain's suicide in 1994, when I was 13 and in 8th grade. I was walking down the hall toward the end of the school day (I recall the exact spot), and a girl who knew I and my friends had gotten into Nirvana broke the news. She was widely considered a Nirvana poser, and we never really interacted because of that. We put that aside for the moment, although I still remember feeling a very petty bitterness that she'd heard the news first and told us rather than the other way around. It wasn't fair -- we were ten times the Nirvana fans she was! So works the teenage mind...

After that was the not guilty verdict in the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial, when I was in 9th grade. Our high school thought it was so important that they let our teachers table whatever they had planned for the final class period, when they would tell us the news and let us talk about it amongst ourselves, with the teachers moderating. My class got gipped because all we got to miss was gym class. I don't recall anyone getting really incensed one way or the other, although it was such a lovely fall afternoon and we were outside, so probably were not in the mood to argue like those who were holed up in a classroom. I would guess my gym class was 70-80% white, with the rest about evenly black and Hispanic.

And of course I remember 9/11. That was sophomore year in college. Our small syntax class had just ended and we were riding the elevator down together when a black woman, almost panicking but keeping her cool, joined us. Either spontaneously or after we gave her a "what's wrong?" sort of look, she told us that "we've -- been -- a -- ttacked." A Millennial friend of mine, who was 12 and in 7th grade at the time, said she remembered everything about that morning and afternoon as well. I doubt she remembers Kurt Cobain or O.J. Simpson, but I'd have to ask.

I don't have one of those vivid recollections of where I was when I heard the news of the stock market tumbling in 2008, though I remember spending extra time in the library in between classes to check in with lots of newspapers. It definitely has not left the same imprint as the other three.

Does anyone have a distinct "I remember exactly what the context was" memory of one of these big, widely broadcast events that is from your childhood rather than adolescence or later? I believe my mother (and perhaps my father, too) has one of those memories about JFK's assassination, and she was only 8 years old then. Does it take something that extreme? How did kids born in the mid-'60s react, if at all, to Nixon's resignation? Or those born in the early '70s to the Iran Hostage crisis? Maybe these do leave lasting sharp impressions on a child's mind, but they have to hit closer to home than the fall of the Berlin Wall or Tiananmen Square Massacre.

For any social scientists out there, this would be an easy thing to find out by survey. Ask a bunch of people if they have this kind of memory for a list of big events, and ask their birth year. For each event, plot the percent with vivid memories by how old they were at the time. This would reveal when the "sensitive period" is for learning about impactful social events. Even more interesting than when it begins is when it ends -- how many who were 60-somethings at the time had a sharp memory of where they were when they heard John Lennon had been shot? Probably not very many.

Maybe this period of learning lasts only as long as a person's reproductive career, when we have no choice but to be very social and up-to-date with our social information. Before then, we're still maturing socially, and after -- well, we've mated all we're going to, so who gives a shit if we're out of the loop?


  1. I was supposed to fly on 9/11 (out of ATL, though, thankfully not anywhere near the Northeast). I can remember my roommate yelling for me while I was in the bathroom getting ready, then standing stark naked, partially dripping wet except for a face full of shaving cream in the living room watching CNN and thinking "holy sh!t".

  2. hmmm, interesting, reagan shot, lennon, pope, space shuttle challenger . . . all happened before puberty for me. i remember the emotion pretty well, but not "where i was."

    howeer, if u you adjust for the fact that it's hard to remember almost anything - i.e. not only disasters - when you're young not sure you're really on to anything here.

  3. John Lennon's murder was noteworthy for me and millions of other people because it happened while I was watching Monday Night Football on ABC. A screen crawl announced that Lennon had been shot, and shortly thereafter Howard Cosell announced on the air that Lennon was dead. A strange way to find out, to be sure.

    A few months later, I first heard about the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan on the car radio just after starting out on a 3- or 4-hour drive. This was very frustrating, as it was clear from the radio announcer's description that the whole incident had been caught on TV cameras, yet hours would pass before I actually could see it.


  4. I was born in 1964. I remember the moon landing in 1969-not the actual event but how excited all the adults were around me. I remember basically nothing else from when I was five-guess it made a big impression.

    I also remember Nixon's resignation speech when I was 10-again not because of the event, but because my mother seemed shocked and told me this is a very big deal.

  5. I remember the White Bronco chase more than the actual OJ Simpson verdict.

    The Princess Diana car crash was another event that I remember pretty vividly, not so much because I cared but because of how I was confused by the media frenzy over the death of someone I had thought was a pretty minor celebrity.

  6. I can remember the Princess Diana car crash and I was only in primary school. I turned on the TV and saw it, knew who she was and thought it was important enough to go and tell my mum, who didn't believe me.

    Also, I remember September 11 because I stepped on the school bus, everyone was quiet, I started to talk and someone told me to shut up and listen to the radio. Some wanker was droning on with some analysis of the event and it took a while to figure out what exactly had happened.
    The attack happened at ~ 2am in Aus when most were asleep.

    - Breeze

  7. i remember the challenger explosion from when i was in elementary school. it was a really big deal where i lived b/c so many people are involved in the space industry. a few years later, they built an elementary and middle school named in honor of that shuttle. our high schools were named after other astronauts that died before the challenge incident.

  8. The first news event I remember was the fall of Saigon. I was five. I remember watching the news reports and asking my dad why the people were trying to grab onto the helicopter.

  9. "...a few years later, they built an elementary and middle school named in honor of that shuttle. our high schools were named after other astronauts that died before the challenge incident."

    That is my hometown as well, but I was only two when the Challenger blew up - too young for it to make an impression.


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