Some of us were 8. Some of us were 18. It was the most beautiful September day you could possibly imagine, before the world changed. September 11 will live on in our generation’s memory, the motion of that day permanently imprinted upon us. Just as our parents remember JFK’s assassination, or the declaration of the Vietnam War, this is something we will remember forever. On that day, our hearts and prayers went out to New York, D.C., and a lonely field in Pennsylvania.
I was a freshly minted 13-year-old and in the eighth grade. My memory is a little fuzzy about the specifics of the day. I was sitting in art class. Someone (I think it may have been the teacher, actually), turned on the TV. New York looked like a battleground, transformed by the chaos and confusion into some desolate Mad Max wasteland. We watched the second plane strike the towers. When the teacher realized what was going on, she turned off the TV, but it was too late. People started whipping out their cell phones and calling their parents. I think I was in shock because I felt numb in comparison to the bubbling hysterics of my classmates. As the day wore on, parents pulled their kids out of school. People speculated that the next site of attack would be Millstone, the massive power plant that employed many of our town’s residents. When I finally got home, I found my mom sitting in her bedroom, silently watching the same CNN footage. My mom didn’t even look at me when she said, “Can you believe it?” I said, “No.” None of it felt real, even as I watched the New York skyline turn to smoke and ash.
Sixth grade, Ms. Wade’s class: She nervously nibbled on pretzels all day because “something might’ve happened” to a family member. My mom picked me up from school that day; on the doors leading into the building, signs instructed parents not to tell their child about the day’s events while still in the building, because of our proximity to the city. My dad worked in New York, and my mom kept telling me over and over that he was fine. I didn’t understand the magnitude of what happened, but I knew I didn’t want everyone all sad on my little sister’s birthday, the 14th. I tried to get my parents to cheer up by then. Bush declared it a day of mourning.
I was a third grader in Mrs. Demarco’s class. All of the sudden, the school got put on lockdown because, being just an hour or two outside Somerset, where the third plane landed, there was fear that Pittsburgh could be another target. But, of course being a child, we weren’t told anything, and all we knew was that we were stuck on the floor under a desk in the corner for what felt like forever. I went home to my family simply confused about what had happened until my father came over and told me “something bad happened, kiddo.” I still wasn’t sure what happened, but cried on my mom’s lap when we lit a candle outside for the families. My dad still cries when we visit our family at the Jersey Shore and we can no longer see the towers peering over the skyline.
I was in seventh grade on that September morning. Living in California, I first heard the news from a friend while driving to school. I remember walking across the grass to the back of my middle school and thinking that my friend was joking with me, and that New York seemed really far away. I was distracted because I had a dentist appointment that day and couldn’t wait to miss second and third period. Being so close to San Francisco, I remember wondering if we’d be hit next. I’m not sure if I ended up going to the dentist or not, but I did sit at home during lunch that day, cross-legged on the rocking chair and eating my PB&J while watching the news and the planes crash into the towers over and over and over again. My fascination with the events of that tragic day has continued to grow since 2001. I cannot get enough of the first-hand accounts or the documentaries on Netflix with obnoxious political agendas. I’ve spent hours listening to police scanner recordings and reading 911 transcripts and finding blog posts from those involved on that day. Why do I spend so much time digging into these story-filled losses and deaths? Is it my inability to comprehend tragedy on such a large scale in my own life? So many people were lost and hurt and left behind grieving family and friends. Who am I to try and uncover details about their final moments when I was 3,000 miles away and just a kid? I guess that maybe this is me trying to connect with a history that is supposed to be mine.
Lemm Elementary. Spring, Texas. 5th grade. I was one of the few students who was not taken out of school early, however, my parents (both of them, which was odd) picked me up. I thought my Grandma had died, because I’d ridden the bus home every day for 5 years. I asked what happened all the way home and went on about how crazy it was that so many kids left school early that day. When we got home my parents turned on the news and tried their best to explain what I was seeing. Innocent, young, unscathed by an evil act of this magnitude—I distinctly remember not being able to wrap my brain around one question—“Why?” Why would anyone do this? What did we do to deserve it? I asked what would happen next and my Dad said we’d probably go to war. Again, I didn’t understand. Would it be like the wars I’d read about in school? Would there be battles in my front yard? Would life ever be the same? I simply didn’t have a concept of modern warfare. My brother was five years older than me, so I feared that he would be drafted and have to go off to war. (The logic of a 5th grader.) My parents assured me that by the time he was old enough to fight, the war would be over. It’s been 12 years, and it still isn’t over. My brother has since joined and left the Army, thankfully never having to be deployed. I remember writing in my yellow, fur-covered diary that day, trying to make sense of it all. “America was attacked today.” It was the only fact I could assure myself of.
I was in the sixth grade, at my K–12 private school in Atlanta, in Mrs. Dickinson’s math class. In the middle of the lesson our principal came in and began furtively whispering to Mrs. Dickinson just outside the door. The whispering went on for a long time, so other kids started goofing off and talking. We were happy to get out of a few minutes of going over our workbook pages. Eventually, Mrs. Dickinson went back to the front of classroom. She said, “There’s been a plane crash in New York. Everything is fine here, but if you’re worried or would like to call home you can go to the office to do so.” Then she returned to her lesson. During the five-minute passing periods between classes I picked up a few fragments in the hallways. There was whispering about other kids who had been picked up early by their parents. A few kids were inexplicably called to the principal’s office over the loudspeaker even though they hadn’t done anything wrong. My mom picked me up promptly at 3 p.m., which almost never happened. In the car she asked us if we’d heard anything about the news, glancing in the rearview mirror to watch our reactions. My older brother, who was in the ninth grade, knew a lot more than I did, and turned on the TV as soon as we got home. I stood with him watching the footage of the smoking buildings and terrified people running through the streets. I remember watching the second plane hit the tower and thinking that I was watching it happen live, and I couldn’t believe seeing a plane just fall out of the air. But by that time it had already replayed hundreds of times.
I was in third grade, sitting in geography class at my Catholic elementary school in northern Virginia. Someone pulled my teacher out of the classroom for a moment. Students chatted happily. There was a ding-ding-ding as the loudspeaker came on. “There’s been an accident in New York,” our principal told us. They ushered us to the church that was right next to the school. I told all my classmates that I was positive it was a bus crash. I sat in the church with my classmates for what felt like hours. I still don’t remember how long we were there, sweaty children, excited to be out of school, saying Hail Mary’s. Slowly, my classmates trickled out. Eventually I was lead out of the church to where my mom was waiting. Our old car was out front, the big one that smelled like horses, and my mom kept calling people on the phone we had in our car. She waited before turning on the engine. She told me what happened. I remember being scared, because wasn’t my grandpa in New York? My family had been in D.C. two days earlier. In my 9-year-old brain, I was worried that the terrorists would know we were there, and come find us. My sister was still in her uniform, sitting on the floor, sobbing. I found my cat, and hid him, so the terrorists wouldn’t find him. I remember the way the sky smelled, the sound of our TV, the grains on George Bush’s face as he stood on rubble. I remember how much he looked like my grandfather, who was supposed to be in the World Trade Center.
On September 11, 2001, I was curling my hair and daydreaming about my upcoming sleepover for my birthday on the seventeenth. From downstairs I heard my dad tell my mom that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Then, as my dad was watching the live feed, I’ll never forget hearing him scream that another plane had hit the other tower. I rushed downstairs with chills over my body; I knew deep down this was an attack, and I thought we would be next. On the way to school, I’ll never forget the radio silence as stations tried to gather information. I’ll never forget my mom crying on the way to drop me off at school. I’ll never forget what I saw when I arrived to school and went to homeroom. My teacher thought turning on the television would be a good idea, but instead we were horrified by watching people spend their last moments on Earth by jumping from a skyscraper on that clear, blue-sky morning. I’ll never forget the images on the television constantly being replayed—it was a horrific scene that I’d only ever seen in movies, and to this day whenever I see those images I cannot help but cry. As a teacher myself, 12 years later, I throw away our curriculum for the day and focus on September 11, because the students I teach were only two years old on this fateful day. When the Boston Bombings occurred, my students were scared and looked for guidance, I was able to help them because of my experience with September 11. I’ll never forget because it should never be forgotten, and our generation can use the tragedy to help teach and heal the next generation.
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