Wednesday, September 11, 2013

What I Remember

For my generation, the question that ties us all together on this day is "where were you when the towers fell?" or "Where were you on 9-11?" It's our Kennedy question, our tragedy that we all have an answer to, no matter who we are or what we thought about this terrible event.

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?


  1. Hi Ashley. Thank you for sharing these recollections. They were very similar to mine. I was in high school. My freshmen year. What a day. What memories.

  2. I can't even believe it's been 12 years. I was a freshman in college and had been at school for less than 2 weeks. It was so scary to be far from home and with people I didn't really know. But I can't even imagine what it must have felt like for people actually there. Definitely a day none of us will forget....


  3. Ashley, now that you’re an adult I will share my experience with you. Was born in 1970, I grew up during the Vietnam War although I have no remembrance of war, however the attitudes projected in movies like: The Day After, Rambo, Red Dawn, and Hunt For Red October ( a pinko sympathizer film) were very much part of my generations perception of war and cold war. My dad was an Aero/Astro Engineer who got his MS from MIT in 1964 and worked in the space program. At age 10 we had a bomb shelter in our back yard and I Knew far too much about the penetration depths of alpha, beta, and gamma particles and the contents of the Special Forces handbook for surviving a nuclear bombing.

    On Sept. 11th, I was 31 and in the fall of my first year teaching, embarking on my second career after a work related injury. Despite the “preparedness” of my generation I knew I had never experienced war. I was down the hall at Smith Academy with my Pre-calculus class (all juniors) during second period when Mr. Woljeko interrupted saying we were attacked. Because he was constantly F***ing with “the new teacher” as much as the students did, I dismissed him and ushered him out of the room at least twice thinking he was just being an ass. When we finally turned CNN on to see the first building burning, all I could think was- this is unequivocally an act of war. I had never seen something so clearly belligerent. When we saw the second tower impacted, it was an “OMFG, there is no way we are getting out of this without blood” moment. From there it is downhill, because I still don’t understand the bait and switch war in Iraq. And although weapons of mass destruction scare the crap out the cold war generation, I didn’t buy the substitution of Sadam Husain for Osama Bin Laudin. Nerve gassing kids in evil and wrong, but I feel as though before we enter into another war, we should be clear out the short-term desired out comes - and since the last few wars have been costly and embarrassing, I personally would like to have learned something from the experiences of the last 12 years, AND I can’t say I have- do you think we have learned something either personally or culturally from the experiences?

    1. Other than to be highly critical of the information given to us? I can't say... :\ Thank you so much for sharing, Mrs. Hawley!

  4. This was so thoughtful and beautifully written! Thank you for sharing!

  5. In my living room, just home from the school day :( Love your writing. Such a tragic day.