Friday, September 11, 2009
Eight Years Later
I was thirteen years old.
That Tuesday was the second one after our long Labor Day weekend, and I remember thinking as I walked to school that it would be the first full week of classes.
There was nothing particularly unusual about that morning. As I always did, I found somewhere out of the way to wait in front of the school until the doors opened, so that I would not have to deal with the taunting from the other students. Once the first bell of the day rang at 7:45a.m. it was time to head for my first-period Spanish class, where my psychotic instructor had a full workload waiting for us.
I got out a piece of paper, and, in an eighth grader’s scrawl, wrote “September 11, 2001” in the upper right hand corner.
It was shortly after nine o’clock when I realized that I’d left my textbook in my locker, and I requested Strict Spanish Teacher’s permission to retrieve it.
When I spun the combination into my lock and opened the metal door, I found that all of my things, including my backpack, had been stolen. Such treatment was not unexpected, but whenever it came it was a blow nonetheless, and in this case one that could prove particularly costly. All of my school books, all of my homework, all of my class notes, were in that bag. The bag itself, meanwhile, would have to be replaced, which in that era was not as easy for my parents as it would become later.
I began opening every unoccupied locker in the hallway, frantically trying to find my stolen things. I was in the midst of this frenzied search when I heard a sob from down the corridor.
I turned and the middle-aged teacher sniffed again, the sound echoing off of the floor and walls.
Our vice principal was trying to comfort her, whispering questions, but her blue eyes were awash with tears.
To his inquiries she repeated over and over again, “I don’t know, I don’t know. I heard it was the Palestinians—”
I continued on my way, bewildered at her weeping, and was still going through lockers when a woman appeared at my shoulder.
“Hi, Awesome Teacher,” I said.
Awesome Teacher had been one of my instructors the previous year, when I was in seventh grade, and her quiet support had meant so much to me. My older readers will remember Awesome Teacher as the one who once told me she wished I were her own child.
“Hey, BB,” she said, dazed.
“Awesome Teacher?” I asked.
“Yes?” she asked. She wore a glazed expression
“Are you okay?”
She looked at me and her eyes filled with tears.
“You’re a good kid, BB,” she said, patting me on my head. “You’re a good kid.”
She walked away without another word, presumably to comfort her distraught colleague. I knew then that something was truly wrong.
Spanish class let out, but I was too confounded by the scene in the hall to proceed to my next period, and so, for the first time in my life, I skipped a class.
I carried on my investigation of the lockers, all the while reflecting on what I’d seen and trying to make sense of it. My things were in the one place I hadn’t checked: the locker right next to mine.
When I finally got them I went to the office, seeking a pass for my next class.
Upon entering, I found the secretaries and administrators listening to the radio in total silence. A man on the airwaves was talking about something happening in New York, and whatever it was it had the whole room entranced.
“What’s going on?” I asked a receptionist who was staring at the speakers in shock.
“New York’s been attacked,” she said.
“By who?” I asked.
“They don’t know,” someone else answered, shaking their head. “They flew airplanes into the World Trade Center.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
One of the women wrote me a late pass to English class, where I sat for the rest of the class, not spilling the beans on what I’d been told.
By the time we left for U.S. history, though, word was getting around, and my history teacher explained in cursory fashion that two airplanes had been hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City.
She tried to get onto cnn.com, but the site was jammed, so she turned on the radio instead.
“Amidst the devastation in New York—” came the strained voice of the announcer. That was as much as we heard, for in that moment there was a sound of screeching metal, a great horrendous scream as thousands of people shouted out at once, and then nothing. The reporter spoke no more—only occasional shrieks penetrated the static.
Our teacher turned the radio off and returned to the computer, from which she was able to glean some information after several minutes’ effort.
“They’re gone,” she said. “The Twin Towers are gone. They collapsed around ten o’clock.”
Within minutes, police cars were pulling up in front of the school.
We weren’t sure what they were doing there, and if anything their presence made us more anxious; was there a worry that our middle school could be some sort of target?
It was about half an hour later when we left for Math class, and that’s when the hysteria really began to set in.
“Close the window shades,” our teacher instructed, bidding us obstruct our view of the growing number of police cars out front.
In one wild moment, I had an image of a terrorist crawling through the glass pane.
“I just want all of you to know,” she said. “That this is not your fault. We were always warned that something like this could happen, and that if it ever did happen, we would be in a dangerous position being between New York and D.C. Your parents knew this when they chose to live here. It was a risk we all took.”
Her speech was interrupted, though, by the ding of the intercom, which started going off with increasing regularity.
“Billy Johnson to the office to go home. Sarah Williams to the office to go home. Jake Roberts to the office to go home.”
By the time our guidance counselor made her way to our room, the buzzer was sounding every few seconds.
“You guys,” Guidance Counselor said, stepping into the room. “They’re sending me around to let you know what’s going on. D.C. is being bombed, and they just hit Camp David.”
We didn’t even know what that meant, not in terms of the implications, or of the incredible significance. We knew it was bad, though.
“They’re sending you home.”
The room of thirteen-year-olds instinctively cheered, but our normally-bubbly administrator cut off the clapping with a severe admonition.
“Stop it,” she said, her glare sharp as a sword. “Do not cheer. Thousands of people are dead right now.”
We fell quiet.
Several minutes later, after Guidance Counselor had gone, there came a moment that I will never forget as long as I live.
“Attention students,” our principal’s voice boomed over the PA system. “Due to some things that have been happening in our country today, schools will be dismissing immediately. We urge all students to exercise caution in making their way home.”
In the hallways, which had been muted in the hour or so following the commencement of the attack, fear and panic were the bywords.
The student body was a thrusting mass of people, running this way and that, scrambling to grab backpacks and make buses, or find the family members who were wading through the crowd.
“My father,” a girl gasped, sobbing uncontrollably. “My father!”
She’d been in fifth grade with me. She was blonde, her name was Grace, and she was from Hawaii. Her father was in the military.
She collapsed onto the ground and could not get up.
Our vice principal swooped down, picked her up in his arms, and walked her into the office as she convulsed.
In the cafeteria, the tables were abandoned. The students were standing in a jumbled mob, discussing the events amongst themselves, while crying mothers called out their children’s names.
“BB,” a voice behind me said.
It was my own mother, wearing the business suit she’d left the house in several hours earlier.
“Where’s your brother?”
The younger children were being kept in their classrooms in the science wing, and I led her there so we could get my eleven-year-old sibling.
“What’s happening?” he asked us as we rushed down a ramp to the front door. “Why is everyone leaving?”
“Because this nation is under attack,” I answered.
Traffic was a nightmare as parents clogged the roads leading away from the school.
“Aunt Ostentatious is picking up Thomas and Blonde Cousin,” our mother told us.
My cousin and youngest brother were still in elementary school then, Thomas six and Blonde Cousin ten.
“They’re celebrating over there,” my mother said in disbelief, alluding to the Middle East. “They’re cheering in the streets. Up in New York, I listened to this woman on the radio who thought her husband was dead. When she found him she kept screaming, ‘He’s alive! He’s alive!’ I cried the whole way home.”
When we reached our house, I went to the living room and turned on the news, where President Bush was giving an emergency briefing to the press from an undisclosed location.
“Freedom was attacked this morning by a faceless coward,” our leader’s words seared immortal into my brain. “And freedom will be defended.”
When I think of the moment he had then, and what he could have done, it makes me regretful for all the pain and suffering that we’ve both experienced and inflicted in the last eight years. He had a 90% approval rating domestically and the unconditional support and sympathy of the entire international community. We could have rooted out the causes of the tragedy, destroyed the terrorist network, and formulated a new, enlightened policy toward the Middle East. It was an instant with the potential to be a catalyst, but instead it was turned into an excuse, into a joke, into a tool of demagoguery and oppression, the kind of which the war to avenge it was allegedly meant to stamp out.
He had the chance to be so great, and I believed in him so much.
That afternoon, we watched as New York burned.
“They’ll probably declare martial law in D.C.,” my father mused.
On the telephone, I asked my grandmother what she thought would happen.
“We’re going to war,” she answered definitively. “We’re definitely going to war.”
Eight years later, that war still proceeds, and an anniversary that has lost its sting for most Americans still affects us every day, from the ruined national economy to the dramatic spike in international terrorism, from our damaged reputation abroad to our polarized electorate at home.
9/11 could have been something else, though. And while there are many things about that day that were awful, there is one I would never trade: pride in this country, belief in its mission, and the unshakeable faith that, in the face of horrendous loss and terrible bloodshed, the United States has and continues to stand for freedom.
For the briefest millisecond of time, a man named George W. Bush and a horrific tragedy made us see that again. That same man took away a newfound patriotism for millions of his countrymen, but for some of us it’s still there.
I hope that, eight years after that unforgettable event, a new generation can be awakened to the fire of America’s greatness, this time through a message of hope, responsibility, and tireless work towards the betterment of our society and the lives of our people.