I’m sure many people will be reminiscing today about the events of 9/11/2001 and where they were, what they felt and the aftermath.
I don’t have a dramatic story, had never even been to New York, and yet, like many Americans, I reflect on that time.
I was a senior in high school, just a few weeks into the year. After a disastrous junior year (that culminated in my ditching class during finals week and telling a certain teacher to kiss a certain part of my anatomy…) I had successfully negotiated the easiest schedule possible for my final year.
While I did walk out my junior year and promised never to return, I had so few credits to finish that I needed just economics and one semester of civics to graduate. I decided to add on Honors Anatomy and AP English just for funsies.
But the rest of my schedule was cake: bible, off campus for an hour, TA, aforementioned civics. It was a Tuesday and thanks to my brilliant block scheduling I didn’t have to be awake and to school until 10am. Thus, I was initially furious when my mom woke me at 6am, telling me to go turn on the tv.
I watched the smoldering Pentagon from the safety of my California home and my mind raced. I watched the towers crumble and fall one by one and my heart sank with them. I couldn’t imagine the chaos, I couldn’t understand the why.
My first thought was Evelyn, the matriarch of close family friends who I had interviewed my junior year for a Living History project. Evelyn had lived through wars, lost a husband in one, seen and experienced so many things. Unfortunately Evelyn had died in early September and I was still reeling from her funeral. How could she not be there to talk to me? To help me understand?
So I left for school, desperate to be around people I could talk to and on my way stopped at the grocery store for breakfast. I remember talking to the man at the checkout and he was the first to tell me,
“They think it was Osama bin Laden.”
And I had no earthly idea who that was, what he believed, where he lived or why he wanted to crash planes into buildings and fields to kill Americans.
I reached school before the bell even though I didn’t have class. We congregated in the parking lot, talking and hugging, praying and crying. Some people had family in New York, friends who might be on a plane in Boston.
Even all the way out in California we were trying to reach everyone close and ensure they were safe.
It was Picture Day. If you look through my Senior yearbook you’ll see a lot of dazed expressions on the underclassmen, very few meticulously chosen outfits and perfectly styled hair.
Everyone was in shock.
And I remember my friend Rachel coming up to us like nothing was wrong and carefully asking her, “did you watch the news or listen to the radio this morning?” She said no and we explained, as best we could, what was happening in our country.
As you all know, in the days, weeks and months following we were a different country. The members of Congress stopped bickering and sang on the steps of the Capitol building. The President had bipartisan support as we sought answers to the who and the why. The overriding focus was to find survivors, protect our borders and keep our nation safe. The Nation drew its strength from each other and we believed that we could overcome.
One Year Later…
I was in college in Virginia. I’d seen the Pentagon up close when Mom & Dad drove me from DC down to the university and we’d spoken to people who lost family in the crash.
We learned that our family was closer to tragedy than realized as my mom’s best friend (more like an aunt to me) heard days later that her nephew was piloting a plane out of Boston and was on the tarmac behind one of the planes that hit the Twin Towers. His plane was grounded but he was one of the first to note the plane wasn’t communicating with the tower. It had already been hijacked.
I was on the college debate team and immersed myself in the world of politics and international relations, hegemony and isolationism. It was empowering to go from a place of complete ignorance about the world and how we were perceived in it to understanding how US policies reflected around the world. And the consequences.
I went to my first and only “remembering 9/11” event and as we sat in the bleachers listening as a droning voice read off thousands of names, none of which I knew, I understood that my choice was to reflect once a year on the bad things that killed so many OR to do things differently every day of my life to honor theirs.
Ten Years Later…
These days I don’t have cable tv and I avoid most of the news of the world. In fact the only reason I learned Osama bin Laden had been killed at the same time as the rest of America was that I had taken an impromptu trip to the beach and every channel had the same news conference.
In 2011, I still wish I could talk to Evelyn, hear her wise words on how to deal with these events that irrevocably change my life and the lives of all Americans. While I do know more about the world, the politics, the religions and the beliefs, I don’t focus on them. I know that these things do affect me, that it could mean terror attacks in my city, on my plane, directly impacting my family. But I recognize that my control over those things are limited.
It’s easy to become paralyzed in fear. It’s easy to be caught up in despair. It’s comfortable to operate from hate. But those ways make me a victim, continually.
This year I traveled to New York and despite every criminal procedural tv show telling me the risks I rode the subway, the train, I flew in and out of major cities and visited some beautiful targets… I mean buildings.
I was fortunate enough on my final day to take the observatory tour of the Empire State Building (unfortunately hauling along all of my luggage). Standing up there, seeing the new skyline of New York I thought about the people on this very tour the day of 9/11. What did they see? How did they watch? Did the run, cram into elevators and take 100 flights of stairs down to the street, fearful this building would be next?
It also made me wonder how many people would not visit such a great city like New York from fear. How many people were not pursing their dreams because of worries about the economy. How many people are holding themselves back from their full potential out of misguided attempts to keep from losing something important.
I know that the most important way I can honor all of the victims of 9/11, including those who have died in the military defending our country, is not to light a candle, say a prayer or thanks or hang a flag. It’s much more than that. Every day I have to face my fears, get my ass out of my comfort zone and change the world. While I understand politics and international relations more now than a decade ago I don’t despair knowing I can’t influence the likes of Osama bin Laden. I rejoice in the fact that I can change my world, I can influence people around me and that is the biggest lesson 9/11 taught me.