Sunday, September 11, 2011

Where I was

Yes, the obligatory 10th anniversary of 9/11 post. I don't have anything profound to say. No astute observations, no personal losses, no hopes for the future beyond the usual platitudes. But recounting the story of what I did that day, unremarkable as it is, will be my way of remembering the tragedy and honoring the victims and the heroes from 9/11.

At the time of the 9/11 attacks, I'd never been to New York City. I had, however, driven past The City just a few days earlier--if I recall correctly, it was the weekend right before 9/11. My whole family had piled into the car as we drove my older brother off to his first year in college. On the car ride back, I remember looking from I-95 right toward the famous skyline of the city I'd never been to. I remember seeing the twin towers. How could I miss them? They were the tallest buildings, and there were two of them. Who could have known, then, that just a few days later, the skyline would never look the same?

It was a Tuesday. Everyone knows the date 9/11, and probably most people know it was in 2001. I remember it being a Tuesday as clear as anything, but I wonder whether kids too young to remember the attacks--or born afterwards--would have any idea what day of the week it was. I was a junior in high school at the time. Strange to realize that I was already a junior in high school ten years ago... Or is it strange to think I was that young only ten years ago? I can never decide. My best friend, a senior, was celebrating her 18th birthday. We hung out in the hallway as usual, in front of the lockers near the bottom of the stairs in the lower A Wing, waiting for first period to start. It was a perfectly pleasant morning.

During second period, I was in English class, and we were in the library. I don't remember what we were doing there--researching for some class project, I guess. I was sitting at one of the big tables in the middle of the library when our teacher, Ms. DeGuzman, told all of us that there was some sort of attack on the World Trade Center in New York. A bombing, or something? She was particularly upset, because she'd lived in New York City for a significant part of her life.

The librarian wheeled out the TV, and turned it on. Both towers had already been struck by this point, and they were showing replays of the second plane. As they showed footage of the towers, the voiceover featured a reporter interviewing someone answering questions from the Pentagon. Then, a crash. The reporter, knowing the sound was on the Pentagon end, asked if everything was all right. The guy answered that it sounded like a bomb went off or something--and went to stick his head out in the hallway, see if anyone knew what was going on. We'd find out soon, of course, that a third plane had struck the Pentagon.

During the passing time between second and third period, the hallways buzzed with the news. Did you guys hear what happened? Not many classrooms had TVs, and not all teachers were willing to stall their lesson plans to watch the news. In between classes, those who were in the dark got filled in with what they'd missed. My band class proceeded as usual, and it was in the hallways afterwards that I learned that the twin towers had collapsed. My friend exclaimed in disbelief, "Why is this happening on my birthday???" She didn't really mean it that way--as if it shouldn't be happening in particular on her birthday--she just didn't know what to make of it. It shouldn't have been happening at all. It's true, though, that now her birthday will long be associated with the tragedy.

The only other class that day in which I remember watching the news was physics. Mr. Bradford's physics class piled into the adjacent classroom, also a physics class, where one of the TVs was set up, and we just watched the news coverage: replays of the towers collapsing, and updates as more information became available. My greatest shame from that day is what went through my mind that period: No new lesson in physics today means no homework tonight! Score! I still didn't truly understand the enormity of what was happening. I had vague memories of the Oklahoma City bombing, which was a horrible tragedy, but I didn't really remember any terrible repercussions from it. I was too naive to see yet that this was different. That it was bigger and scarier and would have a profound influence on the country for years to come.

When I got home, I learned that my two cousins in New York City were fine. One was teaching a few blocks from the World Trace Center when it was hit. Close enough to witness the chaos, but far enough to be safe. The other was even farther away from the attack (I don't know where, though). Thank goodness, both were safe. I don't directly know anyone who died in the attack. I was lucky.

By that evening, it had finally sunk in that these events were a really big effing deal, and I felt horrible that as thousands of innocent people were dying, I had been thinking about a homework-free night. I tried to erase that thought from my memory, pretend it didn't happen, but obviously it didn't work. I still feel awful about it.

That night, we all watched as President Bush addressed the nation. Listening to him, I felt nothing but support. The American people were all united; everyone was a patriot, and no one was accusing anyone of being otherwise. Even other nations were with us, offering support and condemning the attacks. After our high school football games that fall (which I was forced to attend as part of the pep band, a requirement of people taking honors band), they would play "God Bless the USA" over the loud speakers, and everyone would join in singing, passionately, even earnestly, how "Proud to be an American" we each were.

It's odd thinking back to that moment, when we were all united. When I could listen to Bush speak without feeling any derision or embarrassment. Ah, how times would change. Bin Laden is dead now, but that's little comfort in a world where the sentiment that led to these attacks remains strong in the minds of a tiny but determined subset of the population. Plenty of mistakes have been made since the events of 9/11. I'm not an expert. I can't say what was a mistake vs. a blatant bad decision vs. an unfortunate necessity vs. making the best of a bad situation. But that's not the point of today.

On the anniversary, the only point is to remember and honor. Remember the tragedy, the people who died in the airplanes, in the towers, in the collapse, in the rescue efforts (and continue to die from health problems traced back to the rescue efforts in the rubble). Honor those who gave their lives, or risked their lives, to save as many as they could. Honor the people in United Flight 93 who managed to keep their plane from reaching its target and taking more lives than their own. Honor those who have been made to give their lives in wars meant to keep such a tragedy from happening again.

For today, I lay aside all the bitterness that has accumulated in the ten years since the attacks. I return to the purity of that day, and the unity, sympathy, and the pride I felt.

Rest in peace. God bless America.

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