The Soldotna Elementary School gym is silent. Children, decked out in red, white and blue clothes, bandannas and stickers, stand at attention staring toward the flag.
A blonde-haired little girl, wearing blue jeans and a red, sequined flag T-shirt, waits in front of a microphone.
After a moment, her young voice punctuates the silence as she sings "The Star Spangled Banner."
"It means caring for the people that died and caring for other people," said second-grader Sierra VanDeHey after the Sept. 11 remembrance ceremony. "(It's about) thanking them for dying for the Americans and for their freedom."
At schools around the central Kenai Peninsula, the focus Wednesday was on remembering sacrifice, thanking emergency workers and learning to be heroes every day.
"There were so many heroes on Sept. 11 and after," principal Carolyn Cannava told the Soldotna Elementary students at the assembly Wednesday morning.
"We can't change what happened, but we can learn and be better. We can learn that America is a country that is strong and that has a great history of standing up for what's good and right around the world.
"We all can learn what it means to be heroes. When you help somebody else, when you stop a fight, when you do your best, you are a hero," she said. "In honor of Sept. 11, be a hero today."
Across town, at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary, children met their heroes face-to-face to say thanks.
Students, teachers and parents gathered outside the school in the early hours Wednesday morning for a flag-raising ceremony with veterans and members of the Soldotna Police Department and Central Emergency Services.
The VFW raised the American flag to the top of the school's flag pole, then lowered it to half-staff, and students presented posters to their guests.
"You have done the best thing you or anyone could do by fighting for our country," students told the VFW members. "Thank you for fighting for our freedom.
"Thank you for protecting our schools and communities," they told the Soldotna police. "We appreciate all of you, you're our local heroes."
The students also gave a poster to CES workers.
"It's a reminder to remember all the firemen and women who lost their lives giving a valiant effort to save others," the students said.
Then, students took time to talk about their own feelings on Sept. 11 a year ago and now.
Last year, they said, was marked with sadness, anger, tears, fear and disgust.
A year later, they said, Sept. 11 is about patriotism, caring, surviving -- and hope.
The ceremony ended with the crowd singing "Grand Old Flag."
A couple hours later, Kenai Central High School erupted with song. The schoolwide assembly at the high school also focused on remembrance and hope, though at a level more appropriate for the older students.
The high school choir and band presented renditions of "The Star Spangled Banner," "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America."
English teacher Dave Larson read a compilation of famous American speeches, and Judge Charles Cranston discussed the parallels between his generation's experiences of World War II and the younger generation's experiences during the war on terrorism.
"Throughout those war years, the thought of losing never entered my mind. I never doubted freedom's ability to prevail," Cranston said. "I understand more clearly now the reasons for the simple faith of my youth. The principles are chiseled into the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
"And men, women and youth will protect those freedoms for which, since 1775, Americans have lived, fought and died."
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