About three weeks after I began my teaching career in 2014, the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks rolled around. I had decided that I would have my students write about it on that day, and that we would talk about how the world had changed since then. It wasn’t until that morning that I realized that lesson wasn’t really possible with my students. Only one of my seventh graders had been born on September 11, 2001, and he was all of one day old. Of my eighth graders, the majority of them were only a year old–even the oldest of the few high school students in my English remediation class was only four on that day. I was faced with this stark realization that, what was for me the most awful day in memory, was just an entry in a history textbook, or something they saw on television once a year. They had no memory of what had been seared into mine for over a decade. Lucky them.
I had taken the day off work that day to help my mom get ready for a yard sale she was having later that week. I had my alarm set for 9:00, and had gone to bed the night before looking forward to four extra hours of sleep, so I was pretty annoyed when my phone rang at a little before 8:00.
“Are you awake?” It was my mom.
“No. I told you I wanted to sleep until 9 and that I’d come over when I got up!” I replied in my most caustic tone.
“You need to turn on the TV. Something happened at the World Trade Center. An explosion or something.”
“OK. I’ll get up and be over there in a little bit.” I hung up the phone, rolled over, and went back to sleep. My alarm went off at 9:00, I got up, took a shower and headed to my mom’s. Her phone call an hour earlier had been swallowed up by my still-groggy brain.
When I walked through the front door, my mom and sister were sitting on her couch staring at the television. “What are you doing? I thought we were going to be getting stuff ready for the yard sale.”
They both looked at me like I was insane. Mom shot back at me, “Have you not seen the news? There was a terrorist attack at the World Trade Center.” Suddenly, I remembered her phone call, and just as suddenly realized what I was seeing on her television–a shot of the WTC from a helicopter or the roof of a building–smoke billowing out of gaping holes in these two enormous buildings. I sat down and began watching and listening as they explained to me that right after she called me a second plane had slammed into the other building. They had been watching for over an hour, so the reality had sunk in for them, but it was still new to me and my brain didn’t or couldn’t process what was going on.
Before I had the chance to grasp the significance of what was unfolding in New York, a reporter speaking over the horrific pictures from there said that there were unconfirmed reports of an explosion at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. My heart sank. If that was true, and if it had something to do with this, then maybe this wasn’t a terrorist attack at all. Maybe this was the beginning of a war. Someone had already compared what was happening that day to the horror and shock of the Pearl Harbor attack. Maybe it was that–the start of World War III.
The order of events gets blurry in my mind after that point. I remember being in my mom’s kitchen spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread and hearing she and my sister scream as the first tower came down, but I don’t remember seeing the second one fall, and I don’t remember hearing about Flight 93 going down in Shanksville, PA. At one point my sister called up to the school–my oldest niece, now a senior in college, was in first grade. My sister was thinking about coming to the school to get her early, but the principal told her that the kids were okay, that they were intentionally keeping them away from any televisions or radios, and that they were going on about their normal day. So, she decided to leave her there, which I remember saying I thought was a good idea. We tried to distract ourselves by getting things ready for the yard sale like we’d planned, but the news just kept coming.
No one really knew what was happening. There were reports of more planes headed toward Washington. Buildings were being evacuated all over the country. I remember seeing video from Channel 8 in Dallas of people running out of the Bank of America building–the 70+ story building in Downtown. There had been a bomb threat there, but it turned out later to be a hoax. That is one other sickening memory of that day–the multiple hoaxes that happened all over the place. Who would do such a think? Who would do any of this? By early afternoon, we started hearing names. Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, a man and an organization I didn’t know existed until that day were now household names in the United States and around the world. They still are.
By the time my sister and mom went to pick up my niece at 3:00, planes had stopped crashing–in fact, there were no planes left in the air except military jets. Air travel in the U.S. was at a standstill and would be for days to come. I got in my car just to take a drive. I needed a break from the news because, still, nobody really knew what was happening or if there was more to come–I think we all thought there was. I searched for music on my radio, but it was all news, so I reached in my back seat and grabbed a CD that was laying there. It was a recording of Beethoven’s 6th symphony, Pastoral. I turned the volume up, rolled my windows down and headed for the back roads of Van Zandt County.
I’d been driving on those old, bumpy, oil top roads for fifteen years, and had ridden them most of my life. The twists and turns were all familiar and I could (still can) almost navigate them with my eyes closed. The long stretches of straightaways flanked on both sides by hundreds of acres of pasture land tended by the best people in the world; the gentle hills that dip into river bottoms where towering oak and pine trees cover the road nearly to the point of needing headlights at mid-day; the homes of long-time family friends who always stop and say hello. . .Like I said, I know those roads with my eyes closed, and had taken them for granted. But, that day, I didn’t drive so fast, and I looked around, and I remember saying the names of the people who lived in those houses and who owned that land. It was a touchstone. It was a way back to reality from the surreal. I drove those roads a lot in the weeks after September 11, 2001.
As I begin writing this sentence, it is exactly 15 years to the minute that the world changed forever. And, as I sit at my desk with only the light of my monitor and the first rays of sunrise coming through my window, I can’t help but wonder about those fifteen years that have passed. While some of the memories of that day have become jumbled or faded in my mind, many are still just as vivid as they were that morning. But, there is an entire generation of young people for whom September 11, 2001, is not a memory, but a historical even that they learn about in school, or that they hear people who remember it talking about. Like so many other momentous and world-changing events in history, it is, for many people, a point on a timeline; a paragraph in a textbook; a once-a-year remembrance on television. And, I wonder how long that will even last?
I have a lot of mixed feelings about how we remember this day. Like Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy Assassination, the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War, the massacre at the Munich Olympics, the Iran hostage crisis, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the first Gulf War, Hurricane Katrina, and so many others, the pain of September 11, 2001 is largely reserved for those of us who saw it happen in real-time. That, in my mind, is not a bad thing. While we should always remember and never forget, we should also be careful not to relive that day every day. As confused as we all were. As scared as we all were. As doubtful, and insecure, and sad, and angry as we all were on September 11, 2001, it is imperative that we also not forget that there was a September 12th, and 13th, and 14th, and 5,474 other days intermingled between the last fifteen September 11’s. Let us not stay stuck on that one. Doing so does not honor the sacrifice of those 3,000 people who lost their lives on that day, or the thousands of troops who lost their lives in the years since trying to bring justice.
As we spend today, and however many other September 11’s we have left on earth, remembering the unspeakable tragedy of that one, let us do so with an eye to the future. It is necessary to remember, and it is necessary to move on. . .
. . .in memory of the fallen. . .
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis. Requiescant in pace. Amen.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.