It’s been 15 years now since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. I know some of you reading this are too young to remember it and some of you remember it far too well. Whether or not it’s something you remember, this moment, this day, redefined a generation.
For my grandparents’ generation, the question everyone asked was, “Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?” For us, it’s “Where were you on 9/11?”
I was 10 years old. A sheltered, oblivious 4th grader. My teacher didn’t tell us anything about what was happening during school, so I didn’t find out until I got home. But I knew something was different that day. I remember that we walked the long way around the school from the playground to come back in from recess through a specific set of doors. I remember there was a sign on the door telling all visitors to report to the office to sign in. At the time, this was unusual. Parents used to just be able to walk in and head up to a classroom. We weren’t worried about who was in the building. We trusted people.
When I got home, I realized that something was seriously wrong. Both of my parents were in the family room in front of the TV. My dad was standing close to the screen while my mom sat perched on the edge of a couch cushion, one hand almost covering her mouth. By this point, they had been watching coverage for hours. The Twin Towers had fallen. The Pentagon had been hit. A plane went down in Pennsylvania.
I walked in on chaos and speculation. No one on the news knew exactly what would happen next. It was clear that it wasn’t an accident by that point, but we didn’t know why it had happened. We didn’t know who was behind it.
We didn’t know how many people had died. But we knew it was bad. It only took one desperate jumper to make you realize that there were a lot of people not making it home that night.
We didn’t know what to do. To put this in context, before 9/11, the last major attack on the United States was Pearl Harbor in 1941, 60 years earlier. Hawaii wasn’t even technically a state at that point. By the time I learned about Pearl Harbor, it was this historic, heroic thing. America turned that attack into a rallying point, entered the war, and turned the tide of World War II.
No one talked about how tragic it was. No one talked about the fear, the carnage, the unknown in a time when news was much slower than ours. It wasn’t until the Ben Affleck movie a few years later that I really understood the similarities between Pearl Harbor and 9/11.
I can’t even explain to you what this did to a 10 year old. I didn’t understand. At that point, I had never been to a funeral, never lost so much as a great-grandparent in my lifetime. I didn’t understand death. I couldn’t conceptualize 3,000 people, let alone that nearly that many people were missing or dead. I didn’t understand hatred that ran so deep you were willing to kill innocent people to achieve your ends. I didn’t understand the pain or fear of the unknown of all those families wondering what had happened to their loved ones.
But now I do.
I followed the news of this for months. I still have old journals where I wrote about what the news had said that day, about cleaning up the wreckage and continuing to put out fires a month later. (Some just smoldered under all the rubble for weeks.) I watched our president try to rally the nation. Truly, I don’t care what you thought of Bush as a president, but you have to admit that he did the best he could in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. He managed to bring us all together when we needed him to.
Now, 15 years later, I’m teaching classes of students who weren’t alive during the attacks. We read a novel in the spring that takes place 2 years after 9/11 and I actually have to walk them through what happened. I have to show them video timelines so they understand how we all believed it was a tragic accident after the first plane hit and how terrifying it was to watch the second arrive, knowing in a split second that this was no accident. I have to tell them about the brave men and women who brought down a plane in an empty field, hoping to save other people even if they couldn’t save themselves.
I understand how they feel. Some of them don’t understand the gravity of it all. I was too young to remember Columbine or the Oklahoma City Bombing. My mom and my teachers had to explain those to me. It doesn’t impact me as much as it did them. But I know how big they were at the time. They were tragic and frightening and earth-shattering.
Things changed after this date. We don’t trust as easily anymore. We fear Muslims because of the actions of the few, forgetting that there were Muslims killed in the attack as well.
There are times when I feel like 9/11 is one of the few days when we remember that we’re all Americans. We all feel the same pain, whether we’re White, Black, Muslim, Latino, Asian, or anyone else. Pain and fear translate across race, across religion, across beliefs. And hope is not stopped by language barriers.
It may have been 15 years ago, but I hope we’ll never forget.