I haven’t written about where I was on September 11, 2001 in any kind of medium yet.
I’ve chimed in when other people have started telling their stories. I’ve agreed with them that for people of my generation, this was the Kennedy assassination–an event that changed the country, and a day that we will remember vividly for the rest of our lives. We’ll remember what we were doing, maybe even what we had for breakfast and what we were wearing and what we’d been thinking of just before we heard about the first plane. My story is not particularly interesting or eventful or, in the end, different from anyone else’s. But I think that our collective stories are eventful. I think that being able to trace a change in the lives of everyone you know back to a single point in time is incredibly interesting, and also important. All of our individual experiences add up to the American experience of an event that rocked the country and shaped it, for better or for worse, into what it is today. So I’m not going to wallow in recollection, but I will add my humble story to those that have already been articulated.
In the fall of 2001 I was a high school freshman. I tried out for and made the JV volleyball team, but was finding myself almost obsessively worried about how much we would have to run that day at practice, how long a game would take, and whether or not I’d be able to get my work done. This was the second time in my life when, during a period of considerable change in my day-to-day life, I was facing anxiety that got in the way of my thinking or behaving rationally. Basically, I was dealing with undiagnosed and untreated panic disorder, and I thought it was just because I wasn’t good enough at sports.
The first thing I remember from the specific morning of September 11th is sitting in Mr. Coleman’s history class. He was my favorite teacher that year; a large, driven man who loved the study of history and who would say the same maxims over and over, especially his favorite, “God helps those who help themselves.” For the rest of the year, he would devote himself to teaching us about Islam so that we would understand that we should not demonize the religion or the region of the world from which it came. We were in class and an announcement came over the loudspeaker. I believe–and even with life-changing events, it’s easier than you think to forget the specifics of what happened over ten years in the past–I believe that we turned on the television in Mr. Coleman’s class, but I’m not sure. It might have been in Ms. Chen’s Biology class, just after.
What I do remember, very clearly, is walking up the stairs to Biology in complete, blind terror. We were only a few miles outside of Boston, and with the attack on the Pentagon, it seemed like any place on the East Coast could be next. I imagined bombs falling over my head. I pictured other vehicles turned into missiles, crashing into my mother’s office, into the school, into my house. It wasn’t until later, when I could breathe, that I ruled out the likelihood of a nuclear attack and realized how unlikely it was that today would be the day my family died.
I don’t know if we stayed in school or not. My memory is a series of snapshots. Snap: Sitting in the second row of Mr. Coleman’s classroom, staring at the loudspeaker. Snap: Looking out the window of the stairwell to see if anything was headed our way. Snap: A darkened Biology classroom, swallowing hard as I looked up at a television screen. And then, snap: Sitting on my parents’ bed while they told me, with a sense of calm and of confidence that for all I know they may not have felt, that yes, this was horrible, but that we were safe, and that this was the work of people who hate what America stands for, primarily in an economic context. That they had chosen the World Trade Center as a symbol and also as a way to maximize damage. That a small town outside Boston was not worth their effort. And that my uncle and his family in New Jersey were safe.
I remember quitting the volleyball team because my capacity for anxiety had been far overreached.
I remember how quickly I got disgusted with the media for its constant harping and picking at wounds that were trying to heal. I remember rolling my eyes at the different ways they referred to the attacks: “Nine-eleven,” “September Eleventh,” “The World Trade Center tragedy.” I remember thinking that by referring to the date instead of the substance of what happened was stupid. We don’t call the Oklahoma City bombing “April Nineteenth.” But the symbolism of 911 stuck, and we all got used to it.
I remember a town meeting where a man who’d lost members of his family fell apart in front of the crowd, while trying to argue for a something–what was it?–that had to do with town policy.
I remember the memorial service a year later, with the entire school standing outside, listening to speeches and prayers and music, and I remember crying maybe even harder than I’d cried on the day of, because somehow the experience of the people trapped in those buildings became real to me in a way that they hadn’t been before.
And finally, I remember sitting on the floor in the school hallway, writing a journal entry about America entering into war with Iraq. All I could think of was that I might be drafted, and if not, that my younger brother might be. Almost certainly would be, if they re-instituted the draft and if the conflict lasted long enough. By 2003, he was fourteen, the age I’d been when the chain of events had been set into motion. I knew that wars tended to last years and years. He would be eighteen in less time than it had taken World War II to conclude. I started thinking about how we would get him out.
I was lucky. No one I knew personally was hurt or killed eleven years ago today, and no one I have known has developed serious health problems from the aftermath. Everyone I know who has gone to Iraq or Afghanistan did so of their own volition. I almost laugh when I read that journal entry now, because there I was thinking that we were going to be in a war like you read about in books, where you face violence and deprivation at home. Silly me. We wouldn’t need Victory gardens. I wasn’t going to have to go to work for my family or for my country. We put all that on the other place.
I don’t have a conclusion to this entry. I don’t want to talk about politics or invasions of liberty or racial/religious profiling, although they’re all important. I just want to sit for a minute and think about what it must have been like, in those last few minutes, for the people on the top floors of those buildings when they realized that they weren’t going to make it out. And I want to think also about the men and women outside who went back in, again and again, to help just one more person. The word “hero” gets thrown around a little too easily for my liking in some cases, but not in this one. Finally, I want to think about a city and a country coming together in shocked but resilient solidarity, about people helping each other and comforting each other and grieving with each other. Maybe it’s messed up, but when I think about the America I love the most, that’s the one that comes to mind–the country of people who, in the midst of a horrific situation, held each others’ hands and propped each other up. I don’t know if that America even really existed, if for example I can separate that from the America that ran rampant with hate crimes against people of Middle Eastern descent. But the image of a New York united is one that has stuck with me ever since.
If it’s not the truth, or not all of the truth, at least it gives me an idea of what that looks like, and the hope that someday, without violence to trigger it, we can still get there.