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The Origin Story Of That Viral 9/11 Middle School Tribute Performance

Last week, Ben Sinclair of High Maintenance gifted Vulture with a special crowdsourced YouTube playlist filled with a treasure trove of hilarious, weird, and surreal clips that you could spend hours exploring. One clip in particular caught the eye of comedian Brett Davis, who posted an excerpt of it on Twitter that went viral for reasons that will become very obvious once you watch it.

The clip, which looks like it could be taking place in any auditorium in any school across America, begins with a gaggle of tweens in hoodies and shorts marching, jumping, shaking and high-fiving one another to the strains of LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem." Then comes the turn: a small video screen pops up in the upper left corner showing television footage of the September 11th attacks, as the students perform a coordinated dance to it. It culminates in two girls, wearing what appear to be white feather boas, twirling around to represent the Twin Towers, with both eventually falling down in sync with video of the towers falling.

That isn't the end though, not even close: a series of statements appear on-screen declaring that "AMERICA Bounced Back...STRONGER...FREER...More CREATIVE...than Ever!!!" This is followed by a hilariously crude clip art highlight reel of new technology and social media platforms that emerged post-9/11, including the iPod, Xbox, Facebook, Wii, Twitter, MacBook, Nintendo DS, iPhone, Pinterest, Instagram and the iPad. (Note: not all these were actually American inventions.) Overall, the play looks like a real-life version of that Saturday Night Live "High School Theater Show" recurring sketch.

Of course, it's really easy to fall into a cringe trap when trying to pay tribute to 9/11. Things like weeping Superman Twin Towers flasks, 9/11 cheese plates, and memorial wine are but a few of the tasteless items that have appeared in the years since. People have baked hideous cakes, dressed up as the burning Twin Towers for Halloween, and performed cheerleading routines that have been awful in execution. Brands have blurred the line between genuine tributes and crass commercialism. Comedians and presidents have exploited the tragedy for their own gains.

But there is a marked difference between someone like Rudy Giuliani, whose increasingly hate-filled post-mayoral career has been cynically built upon constantly reminding people he was mayor during 9/11, and a bunch of middle schoolers trying to pay tribute to an event they aren't old enough to remember (assuming they were even alive for it). But we still had lots of questions about how and why this clip came to be. So we spoke to the two people who directed it to try to understand how 9/11, middle schoolers, and Pinterest all converged in one unforgettable skit.

The performance took place in 2014 at The King's Academy, a private Christian K-12 school in West Palm Beach, Florida (their school motto is "Where Christ is King"). This was apparently one of six Homecoming skits that the students performed that year; the theme changes every year (Disney, game shows and movie genres are examples of past themes). That year, the theme was that each class had to represent a decade. The eighth-graders, who were born in 2001, chose to represent the 2000s.

You can see the full 11-minute skit below.

"They wanted to do a skit based on their actual lives that decade," Heidi Martin, one of the skit's co-directors who still teaches math at The King's Academy, told Gothamist. "That's why it starts off with a New Year's Eve party, because of 'Y2K,' and then goes into a 9/11 tribute. And then goes into their elementary years at their school, highlighting the technology/social media boom." (Note: "Party Rock Anthem," the song playing during the Y2K party section, is from 2011.)

"The students came up with ideas for the skit and thought 9/11 was such a significant event from the decade that they wanted to include it in the skit," said the other co-director J. Adam Geuder, a former faculty advisor at the school who left it three years ago. "The skits traditionally include dance in any way possible." After the group of around 40 students came up with the concepts, they worked with Martin and Geuder to break it down into a 10-11 minute skit, and picked out the music and costumes they wanted to use. They also worked with a choreographer for the dancing; Martin noted that it took about 20 hours of rehearsal to put that all together.

"The idea for the dance in that part was to covey the sorrow of 9/11," said Martin. "But, of course, the dance of Y2K (a party) was much more energetic, then the students changed dance styles to convey the shock and confusion of 9/11, and then finally the sorrow of the towers falling and the horrible loss of life. In the room, these emotions were definitely felt."

The footage of news reports on 9/11 wasn't just put in as post-production—the video in the corner of the screen was playing on big screens on the side of the stage (including the clip art part). Martin stressed that the students weren't trying to make light of the tragedy with the juxtaposition of 9/11 and technology/social media as symbolizing American strength.

"I know that the students were not intending to make the strong or absolute connection between the country's recovery from the tragedy of 9/11 and the rise of technology, which it seems some are now trying to make," she said. "They intended to cover Y2K, 9/11, technology and school life. In the room during the performance, it played to the audience that the 9/11 tribute was meant to be solemn and a reminder to never forget the victims, and the students wanted to convey (again, within the 10 minutes allotted for the competition) the sense of pride that America came back from that terrible event. I don’t believe that any student or teacher involved in that class would think that social media is the source of our country’s strength or would want to equate the tragedy of 9/11 with technological advances."

Geuder added, "The students focused on the technology and social media mostly because they're 14 years old, so that's how their lives work these days. To them, that is one of the reasons America shows strength."

Both Martin and Geuder were surprised to hear from me, and neither had heard any complaints about the skit when it first premiered (up until last Thursday, the original video barely had over 2K views). "I think that people in the room had tears from the 9/11 section, then felt hope, felt the sweetness of youth in their portrayal of the elementary years, and then joy of their elementary graduation to end the skit. The students wanted to end on a joyful note," said Martin.

They also noted that the fine arts students take a trip to NYC every year with the school, and have visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. "This is a very sobering and impactful visit that I’m sure will last a lifetime," Martin said. "I know that the first time that I saw the memorial it brought me to tears because of the reality of the tragedy. Our school did have a student who lost a parent in 9/11 and we have teachers who lost friends in the tragedy."

As the video states at the start, the performance is also dedicated to classmate Jenny Spell and her family, which is a whole story in its own right. Spell developed what appeared to be the flu in 2014, then was hospitalized with H3N2 (bird flu), which had made its way to her heart. She ended up spending 241 days in the hospital being treated for it: "Her organs started failing one by one. Liver. Pancreas. Gall bladder. Kidneys. She contracted a deadly fungal infection and suffered an aneurysm in her abdomen," the Palm Beach Post reported. She survived, received a kidney transplant, and has had to learn how to walk, write, and eat again. (Spell's mother, a teacher at King's Academy, told Palm Beach Post she hoped that by publicizing her daughter’s life-and-death battle with the flu, other parents would immunize their children.)

Incredibly, this performance did not win the grand prize that year (there's a good reason its name on YouTube is "8th Grade Homecoming Skit- Second Place- 2014"). The tenth graders won that year with a far-less provocative skit about the '60s, which you can watch below.

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