It’s been 14 years.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been that long. It’s even harder to believe that most kids going into high school this year weren’t even alive when it happened. When I talk to a lot of them, they think of September 11th as a day that started the War on Terror, but they’ve got it all wrong.
In the spring before we left for the summer before it happened, we were learning about Pearl Harbor and our teacher said that it was a day like no other. He said that it was one of those days that no one would ever forget where they were, what they were doing, and who they were with– he also said that we were lucky to not know a day like that.
Not even two weeks into the next school year, we experienced on of those days.
We were in math class when suddenly we were told to go back to our homeroom. I remember walking in and sitting on the floor in front of the TV that had been rolled into the middle of the room. One of the guys next to me goes, “Whoa! A plane hit a building… That pilot is in so much trouble.” I remember watching it unfold on a live broadcast in a middle school classroom. We sat together as we watched a ‘developing story’ which was being attributed to a pilot error. As we watched, we saw the second plane come into view and hit the tower on live television. I remember the audible gasp and looks of horror on the hosts’ faces, and how they stumbled over their words trying to explain what we all just watched happen. Together, we watched as our classroom fell silent.
I had a classmate that lost a loved one that day. He knew it too. He knew it in the instant it happened. We prayed that they were wrong. We prayed he’d get a different phone call. When his name came over the intercom to be dismissed from school early, it was like the earth moved in the room. The silence that followed was deafening.
When I talk to people, I hear over and over again that they watched the broadcasts live in their classrooms, or that they were evacuated from schools, or that they found themselves unable to focus knowing what was happening. I’ve come to the realization that most teachers weren’t that much older than I am now when this happened and I think: Would I be able to keep my cool? How would I explain what’s going to kids if this happened today?
I remember the teachers gathering in our classroom to watch, and I remember them being shocked– mouths open, eyes covered, heads in hands, etc.– but I also remember them remaining incredibly calm. I remember them asking if we were OK. I remember a teacher offering their classroom as a place to go if we needed to get away from the television. I remember the looks of disbelief, but also questioning if allowing us to watch it was OK. We were in 8th grade and more than half of us didn’t know what the World Trade Center or a terrorist was. I remember one teacher mumbling something about our right to watch history happen, if we wanted to watch it.
Once it was declared an act of terrorism the tempo changed. The reality was that NO ONE knew what was truly going on. Then, there was a plane that was going down in Pennsylvania, and in DC. We were under attack, but our teachers someone stayed calm. They assured us that we were going to be OK. I can’t imagine what was going on in their heads. At one point, the news was saying that dozens of planes were being hijacked. I can’t imagine how I would react in that moment. I would be worried about my own family, my dog, my cat. I’m not sure that my classroom would be my number one priority. If any of these sorts of what I would consider ‘normal’ ideas were racing through their heads… I never noticed it.
Because our school was located next to a federal building, we were evacuated to the Augusta Civic Center, and were told that our parents would pick us up there. Again, the chaos that was going on behind the scenes… I don’t recall any of it. All I remember is how quickly everything happened. We went from watching TV, to loading buses, to parents picking us up and signing us out in what seemed like no time at all. I remember carpooling with the kids I always did to my Grandmother’s house, and spending the afternoon on the couch, completely fixated on the news.
Another year comes and goes, but that lingering somberness remains. I have a hard time not noticing the time throughout the morning– 8:46 A.M., 9:03 A.M., 9:37 A.M., 9:59 A.M., 10:03 A.M., 10:28 A.M., 11:02 A.M.– it’s hard not to remember the fear that took over the nation in those three and a half hours. It felt like it wouldn’t stop. Each time you thought the coast was clear, something else would happen and the panic would begin again. Even into the evening, buildings were still collapsing and fires were spreading. The dust and ash that engulfed the city lingered for what seemed like months.
And for those months, it seemed like every station was taken over by news coverage and constant replays of people jumping out of buildings, the towers collapsing, the Pentagon burning. Occasionally, you’d hear about someone that was pulled from the rubble alive, or the amazing 14 that survived the collapse of the North Tower. It truly was the Pearl Harbor of our generation.
So, how do you explain that to kids that will only ever know what they read in a textbook, or the limited clips they can find on the internet? You teach them to remember. To remember the heroes. The heroes we call first responders who ran into the burning and collapsing buildings. The heroes we call civilians that banded together to bring down a plane that had been hijacked. The heroes that we call volunteers, who opened their homes, provided meals, and comfort to victims of the attacks, and to the first responders coming from all over the country to help. The heroes we call teachers, that comforted classrooms and remained calm in the face of fear to create normalcy when everything was falling apart. The heroes who lost their loved ones and somehow find the courage to move forward with their heads held high.
We teach kids that this day is more than a day that recognizes something that happened to us 14 years ago– this is a day that reminds us that as a society of people, we are stronger together. And together, we must always remember.