I thought a lot about writing something on my blog about 9/11. I was hesitant because even though I have vivid memories from that day, I almost feel like I don’t have the “right” to publicly comment about my experience since I wasn’t in New York City that day; I couldn’t smell the smoke, I didn’t lose a friend or family member, I was pretty removed from the whole thing.
I don’t dwell on 9/11 much, or even follow coverage of it most years. It’s the bigger “anniversary” years—1, 5, now unbelievably, 10– that kind of get to me a little. How quickly time passes.
The day was pretty nondescript when it started. I was in my senior year of high school. I officially had a “study hall” in my schedule for my second period class, but I was in the process of organizing an independent study in anthropology. Each day I would walk down to the cafeteria and “sign out” of my study hall with the hip new history teacher and head to the library where I would sit with an equally nerdy friend of mine who was doing an independent study in economics.
That morning I remember it was sunny. I walked to the large cafeteria, where someone was trying to change the channel on the tv monitors (which usually looped a powerpoint of all the school events) but the screen was all snowy and making a static noise. There were some murmurings about cops or planes in New York City, but no one seemed alarmed, or even that interested. I walked over to the history teacher who monitored my study hall. She had dark, short cropped hair and wore jean jackets and dangly earrings, and I thought she was young and cool, even though I barely stayed in her study hall for more than a few minutes each day. Later in the year, after my request to do an ethnography on the culture of a regional Islamic center for my English class fell through, she let me do an ethnography on her freshmen history classroom.
She signed my hall pass, and I headed down the hall and over to the library. Our school library was constructed with a wall of windows on one side, so students from the hall could see in. As I was finishing high school right around the time computer research was slowly becoming the new social norm, most of the library’s books had been pushed to the back, and several rows of computers lined the area near the windows. Behind the rows of computers a tv monitor was mounted high on the wall, which also generally scrolled the powerpoint announcements much like the tvs in the cafeteria. As I approached the doors to the library I noticed most of the library staff and a few teachers were standing near the small square tv, watching some sort of news coverage, including my anthropology advisor. My economist friend Paul was sitting at the closest table to the tv, holding his stack of books and staring up through his large round glasses at the screen.
I approached and slid into the chair next to him, trying to absorb what was on the tv. A picture of the Twin Towers in New York City… burning.
“What happened?” I asked Paul.
“Planes flew into the World Trade Center.” He said.
I think he said planes. I’m looking at the timeline of events, and trying to remember my high school schedule, and when I must have gotten to the library. The second plane must have already hit by then, because I would have vividly remember that, like I vividly remember watching the South Tower fall. Live… on television. I saw it fall and felt it in the pit of my stomach. All those people. The teachers and librarians, Paul and myself, we let out this collective cry of disbelief. How can it fall? How can a building fall like that? Like a movie?
That summer I had volunteered for the Red Cross, and helped with several blood donation campaigns. Just a few weeks prior I remember hearing them call for “a state wide blood shortage” and the need for emergency drives in order to keep enough blood in reserve. In shock, I remember turning to Paul and saying, “There isn’t enough blood! The Red Cross won’t have enough blood to save those people!” Paul turned to me, equally shocked and said, “Imagine the insurance claims! Some company will have to pay millions, maybe billions!”
We were in New York, but “upstate” is like a whole other world to the skyscrapers, yellow taxi cabs, and heavy accents of Manhattan and its boroughs. If one could jump in the nearest car and drive from my high school straight to the Trade Center in NYC it would take about five hours, probably more. Some of the kids I went to high school with had never driven more than an hour away from their home, let alone visit New York City.
But we visited the city a lot. My parents grew up about 45 minutes north of the city in a town in Orange County. One of my uncles still lives there and commutes to work in lower Manhattan each day by bus. My grandmother still lives in the house where my mother grew up, and as a kid she and my aunts would take my sisters and I in to New York City during the holidays to see the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall and the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. I had never gone to the top of the World Trade Center, but I remember driving through the city many times, looking at the famous tourist sites (sometimes with Irish relatives fresh from the villages in Western Ireland in tow)—pointing out Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, visiting Ellis Island, where my Irish grandfather and great-grandmother’s names are listed on the wall of immigrants.
I didn’t feel like a “New Yauwker” (imagine with thick Brooklyn accent to stereotype someone from “the City”), and would feel annoyed when meeting new people from other places that thought that I was from “the City” because my name badge said “New York”—“What was it like to take a taxi to school?” “Which is your favorite skyscraper?”—I’d answer, “I’m from Upstate New York, and it’s totally different.” But I still felt an emotional connection to New York City from those childhood holiday trips, and knowing when I was at my Grandmother’s house it was only a short car trip away. I never ever wanted to live there, and it wasn’t idolization, but the city was there. It felt a bit familiar.
And now it was burning.
And the building fell. It fell.
I didn’t want to do anything the rest of the day. I just wanted to sit in front of the tv and stare. Those first few hours were so confusing. No one knew what was next. How could I look away?
The bell rang that signaled the changeover in classes and the library staff peeled their eyes away from the tv long enough to shoe us students in the library along to the next place we were supposed to be.
I think there were two classes between the library and my mid-day English class. I can’t clearly remember what we did, but I’m fairly certain that we didn’t do much, and probably continued to watch the tv. But then we got to our mid-day English class. It was a college theory class in a double class period team taught by two teachers. Mr. F was the lead teacher that day. When we entered class he didn’t have the tv on. He instructed us all to sit down and said we would be continuing on with class that day, that watching tv wouldn’t help anything, and we had to keep a sense of normalcy in our lives. He wouldn’t even turn the tv on and mute it so we could follow any updates.
Mr. F could be a bit curt and gruff by nature. He had three kids in the school system (his middle daughter was in my class, she was the kind of student that was assumed to be our valedictorian at least a year or two before we graduated). He was a softball/baseball coach, and ran a tight ship. It was like him to lay down “the law” and that was that.
I remember being so mad at him. I still feel mad at him when I think about it. An anger deep in my chest. How dare he tell me I couldn’t watch the horror unfold on the screen? No one knew yet what was happening, there were still all sorts of stories about planes in the air, heading to important places across the country. This was history happening. Don’t turn off the freaking tv!
I remember repeating to the other teacher in class (Mrs. D), “The Red Cross has a blood shortage, what will they do?” I remember she responded gravely, “C, I don’t think they will find a lot of people alive to give blood to.”
The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. We got home from school and watched the tv some more. I was obsessed with watching. The coverage was on every channel. You couldn’t escape it. I checked my email and had several messages from people I had attended an international leadership conference with a year or two before, they had checked our participant list and saw “C C—New York” and assumed I must be involved in the craziness in Manhattan, and sent me messages of support.
I couldn’t believe the next day we were expected to go to school. But the teachers said we had to get our lives back to “normal.” I was frustrated. Why did everyone want us to be “normal”? The whole world felt crazy, and I wanted to have a day or two to absorb it.
My afterschool job was working at a local independent bookstore. That second day I went to work. In the store we were surrounded by news– newspapers on the wracks, magazine covers, NPR on the radio. I luckily had called ahead to have the owner save me a copy of the New York Times from September 12, 2011. By the time I got to work all the papers were gone.
The months after September 11th scared me. I was really uncomfortable with all the American flags flying everywhere. One in nearly every window, on every car, on every light pole. The uber-patriotism. It didn’t seem to fit right. I didn’t think people were sounding reasonable. I understood that the country was hurting and trying to recover, but then Bush started talking about war.
I remember one heated exchange in my AP American Politics class. My teacher was talking about bombing Afghanistan, and I voiced my worry about it, about killing innocent people. I didn’t see the difference between us dropping bombs and killing innocent people there, and them flying airplanes into buildings and killing innocent people here. My teacher said he would drop bombs on the Afghans “any day, if it meant saving American lives.” I asked why an Afghan life meant less than an American life. He told me to stand up and point to five of my classmates I’d rather see dead rather than five Afghans I knew nothing about. “That’s why.” He said. I was upset, and angry. Five people were five people no matter who they were.
Life in the US changed quickly. A close friend of mine from high school (ironically his birthday was 9/11) was studying in Hungary as a Rotary Exchange student that year. He called when he was feeling homesick or lonely. I remember once trying to explain to him that he would be returning to a country that had greatly changed. When he left I had gone with his family to the airport to see him off and hugged him goodbye at his departure gate before he boarded the plane and we watched as his plane taxied back towards the runway. That was August 2001. I’d probably never be able to do that again in my lifetime.
I went to college, and finally had the opportunity to travel myself second semester of my freshmen year. I had wanted to travel for years, and had begged my parents for years, and this was my first opportunity.
I went to France. I was there when Bush declared war on Iraq. My fellow American students and I crowded around a computer to watch a grainy streaming video of Bush’s speech in the cramped computer lab in our program office. It was a war I couldn’t support. I decided to wear a white arm band that said “contre la guerre.” I wore it the rest of the time I was in France. We were publicly told by our American advisor that we were prohibited from French protests about the war, but as a former activist herself, the teacher looked the other direction when it wasn’t so secret that I had joined in with various “manifastations contre la guerre” in the city.
I wrote home about my activities and my feelings, to friends and family, and started to get negative, sometimes even hostile responses in return. How could I speak out against my president in a time of war? And to the French? It was the days of “Freedom Fries” (which the French didn’t get—“Don’t the Americans know that French Fries are actually Belgian?” they would ask), and the idea that I was standing up as an American abroad declaring my disagreement with my country’s war was very upsetting to people back home. One day I went to my professor’s office and burst in to tears.
9/11 shaped most of my twenties.
And now its ten years later. Ten years in which so much has happened in the world and to me, and yet has passed so quickly. I think the passage of time hit as hard as the day itself.
All I wanted to do yesterday was sit in front of a tv and watch 9/11 anniversary coverage. We don’t have a tv, so I resorted to reading news sites, and Wikipedia events of the day. For the first time I listened to all the names read in New York and I was struck by the number of kids reading–people who were babies or in vitro when their fathers died. I searched for streaming documentaries online and watched one called “The Falling Man” about the famous picture and the “jumpers” from the Towers that day.
I couldn’t stay transfixed to the computer all day though—P’s parents were here, and there was a bit of cleaning and shopping that had to be done.
I don’t need to dwell every year, but I think it will hit me again at 20 years and perhaps 25. That passage of time, and that moment in history. It was also the beginning of my own transition to adulthood, and to finding my independent voice.
I can’t believe it’s been ten years already.