Wednesday, September 11, 2013
What I Remember
It's hard to believe that it's been 12 years. I was in middle school, 8th grade, and while it happened during first period, they didn't tell us until third. I don't think any of us assumed anything bad was happening when the principal came to the door and asked to speak to Ms. Case. And we didn't notice the pained, confused looks the teachers passed each other while they watched us pass from one class to another. They usually supervised us to make sure no one passed through the upperclassman halls, or popped out one of the doors to sneak a cigarette in the two minutes between classes. We didn't think anything was strange.
New York City is only three hours from my high school. Many of us had taken bus trips to see the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, The Empire State Building, and the Twin Towers... it wasn't home, but it was close by, and we felt connected and amazed by its bigness and brightness. Times Square still dazzled us. Central Park hot dogs were still delicious and we didn't even care that the vendor's hands were greasy. It was the setting of many of our favorite prime time television shows. It was the streets the Thanksgiving Day Parade danced through on our tv's. It was bigger than Boston, the city we were most used to, and more exciting. NYC wasn't home, but it was special.
It wasn't until third period, when Mr. Cadran was called out. By now we suspected something was wrong. The worried faces were having trouble hiding. Ms. Guil had to leave the room and we swore her eyes looked almost red when she returned. Third period, Mr. Cadran and Mr. Albarno stood in the doorway and while the principal was careful to keep his voice low, our history teacher's booming voice never did learn how to whisper. We heard bits of information: "suicide mission" "bombs" "CNN is in Mr. Hopkins' room" "time to tell them."
I don't know about my friends, but my brain went to the scariest thing I could possibly think of: in the post-Columbine world, in my little farm town, someone had brought a gun to school. This MUST be it. They must have committed suicide in Mr. Hopkins' room and CNN is already there to report. Who else did they shoot? Why did we not hear the gunshots? My heart raced and my eyes darted around the room, why weren't we being evacuated now??
Mr. Cadran calmly re-entered the room and explained what had happened. There wasn't much information yet, the second tower had just fallen. He said we might be at war, it might cause war, he didn't know. My first reaction was relief. No one I knew had died, no one had been shot in my school, we were safe. But war? What did it mean? Would we be fighting now, on American soil? Did we have to worry about planes crashing into other landmarks? Were we, in our tiny Western Massachusetts town, in danger? Every class that day had televisions turned to news stations.
I didn't cry until they interviewed passerby. People looking for husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, fiances, children, brothers, sisters... This was years before I would lose my own father, years before I would even go to my first funeral, and the idea of losing someone so close to me tore away at me inside. Many of these people would never find the people they loved in the rubble. I cried.
When I got home I felt helpless. I watched the footage over and over. I didn't know what to do. I didn't even know anyone who died, but I felt connected. I loved New York. I knew I wanted to live there someday. What had they done to my special city? Today, I would have made cookies. Back then, I lacked any sort of cooking skills. So I took out some hemp rope and some colored beads and made red white and blue necklaces. I worked frantically and made 100 of them, and passed them out the next day. Kids wore the red white and blue beaded necklaces for weeks afterwards, until they were replaced with the more corporate plastic versions.
That weekend there was a candlelight vigil. People were asked to come up and speak. One woman had just moved to our little town from NYC. Everyone she used to work with was now dead. Our math teacher had once worked in the pentagon, and while he was on the phone with a friend who lost his wife in the attack, the wife walked in the door. A boy a few grades below me came to the podium and couldn't get out his words, he was so distraught. I went up to the podium and sang a verse from Sarah McLaughlin's "Arms of the Angels" because it was the only song I could think of, despite knowing it was a song about a junkie. We all cried and held our candles and felt helpless.
It's years later, and I can still remember where I was. Still recall those old feelings of loss and helplessness, even though we've all moved on and grown and put it behind us. I didn't even have to take off my shoes when I went through security at the airport. We're finally letting go of the fear, and it's a wonderful thing.
Where were you?