A decade after the events of 11 September 2001, it still seems like it’s all anyone can talk about. It’s a part of our national consciousness, an indelible part of our awareness that may never fade. Television stations, websites, newspapers, radio, every media form is drowning in coverage and memories. I know there are a number of people who are sick of hearing it, sick of reliving it, and just want to move forward because ten years later we still can’t change what happened, only how we live our lives from here on out. I can understand that; there comes a point where it all becomes more than a bit maudlin. There’s only so many times you can see the same footage before you reach to turn off the TV. There comes a point when you look at reporters digging up the worst day of a person’s life again and again and again to ask the same questions every year and you just wish, deeply and fervently, that everyone would just leave that poor person alone.
But here’s the thing- 9/11 affected us as a nation in a way nothing else in recent(ish) memory has. I’m not talking politically; I’m talking personally. Everyone was affected by that day. Everyone has a story to tell, something deeply personal. The same themes filter through thousands of memories but everyone has a story, and today- just as ten years ago- sharing those stories brings us all together into a single entity: America. We live in a divisive, fractious society but that day, we were all united in the wake of a tragedy unlike anything we could have imagined.
Ask any good Southern girl, she’ll tell you that a porch swing and a glass of lemonade make for a nice day; a porch swing and an older person make for a history lesson. When I was little, I used to sit with my grandmother in the craft circle at church and listen to the older woman swap history. They could tell you with frightening clarity exactly what they were doing when JFK was shot. Most of them could still tell you what they were wearing when Pearl Harbor was bombed. That baffled me. The idea that anything could be that riveting was foreign to me.
But then came 9/11.
When I came out of my third period geometry class, the hallways were buzzing. Big deal, right? It’s high school; the hallways were always buzzing. My fourth period class was practically right around the corner, less than a minute away, but as I passed one of the other math classrooms, one whose door was open, I was stopped by the sight of the TV. The math teachers never turned their TVs on. As I stood and watched with a small cluster of other students, surrounded by curses and insults as others had to detour around us to get to class, the newscaster explained that a plane had been flown directly into one of the towers. There were a lot of people who thought it was a movie and couldn’t figure out why the teacher was showing it, except that that buzz in the hallways was increasingly filled with the same words. Planes. Two towers. Hijack. Then it switched to live coverage and, as we watched in the four minutes between classes, the second plane flew in.
Our section of the hallway fell absolutely silent. The door to my next class was less than twenty feet away so I stood there in the hall and stared incomprehendingly at the television mounted on the wall. The math teacher, whose name I didn’t know then and still don’t now, sat behind her desk and sobbed.
But the tardy bell rang and we hurried into our classes and everyone was talking about it. One of the boys reached up to turn the TV on, but our English teacher told him no.
There was another moment of stunned silence as we all turned to stare at her.
She said our watching the news wasn’t going to change anything that was happening in New York, but it was going to waste a day of learning and we had things to do. The television was not going on.
In a way, I understood- keeping us busy might have been a good way to keep us distracted from everything that was happening, and she was right in that we couldn’t change anything- but there were people in that room with family in New York City. At least two of them had family working in the towers. We all wanted to know what was going on, and there’s nothing quite like a class of AP English Language juniors to spark a debate on the subject, and protests flew like crazy through the room, but the TV stayed off and the lecture went forward as planned. I’m not sure any of us heard a word of it; we were too busy trying to hear through cinder block walls into the classroom next door.
Then the door opened and my friend Jenn, an office aide for the period, stood there with a blue summons slip in her hand. She glanced through the classroom, I thought to find the teacher, but she looked straight at me. Looked like she was about to cry, actually. She practically threw the slip at me and ran back down the hall. The slip didn’t tell me much- I was needed at the office because my mother was on the phone. Strange, especially given my mother’s boss at the time (let’s call them less than understanding or flexible and leave it at that) but whatever. I showed the slip to my teacher and walked down the hall to the office.
Hallways in the middle of class are always strange things, not quite silent for the strains of lectures or class activities that drift through doors and windows of classroom. The women in the front office were sniffling, one sobbing openly, but the stacks of blue slips at their elbows steadily grew at they tracked through the school records to find where students were. As soon as the aides came in they went back out with a new slip, but they had them do it one by one to keep the traffic in the office to a minimum.
I’d interpreted the message to mean that my mother had called and I needed to call her back, but she was actually still on the phone. Already not a good sign. I could hear the strain in my mom’s voice, the way it pulls taut when she’s been crying but trying not to, and she asked me how I was doing. To which I answered very truthfully, I’m confused as hell. Then she says “Dot, we haven’t heard from your dad yet.”
My dad didn’t live or work in New York, and to the best of my knowledge, he hadn’t been given an assignment or inspection there, so I wasn’t sure how he’d suddenly come into the conversation and told her so. There was a long silence and then- carefully, tentatively- she says “Dot, another plane was flown into the Pentagon. It…it hit the section with your dad’s office.”
And suddenly the world tilted. I know she was still saying something, knew that one of the office ladies was asking me something, but I couldn’t hear anything. All I knew was this unbearable tightness in my chest- the precursor to a panic attack. I hadn’t known about that other plane because the damn TV in my classroom was off. Mom asked me if I needed her to come take me home and I almost said yes- until I realized she’d have to go back to work and I’d be sitting all alone in the house staring at the televison.
I elected to stay at school so I could be with my friends. Being alone at that point seemed like a very bad idea. Mom said she’d keep trying to get in touch with my dad and she’d let me know as soon as she knew anything, and that I was to call her if I needed her or if I changed my mind and wanted to go home, or even just wanted to come to her office. I stayed in the school office for another minute or two to catch my breath, and watched some other unlucky kid follow me to the phone with his blue slip clutched in hand. He was a freshman, new not just to the school but to the town, and his mother was calling to tell him that his aunt had been on one of the planes.
There are times when I’m a coward.
That was one of them, and I escaped back to the hallway before I could see how he reacted. I was already crying over not knowing what had happened with my dad, I didn’t think I could handle seeing someone else know they’d lost someone.
When I got back to my English class, I walked right up to the TV and turned it on. My teacher started to walk over to turn it back off and as much as I normally loved that teacher, I’m pretty sure I would have knocked her on her ass if she’d gone through with it. If there was even the slightest chance that I’d see my dad in the crowd as news coverage showed the Pentagon, that TV was staying on.
Well, I probably wouldn’t have punched her. But I would have taken my stuff and gone to the library for the rest of the period so I could watch it there.
She left it on but muted it.
I had first lunch, which I normally spent outside with my friends in a technically out of bounds area between the auditorium drama room, auditorium, and band and chorus hallway. That day we spent it inside the drama classroom, despite the fact that there was a class going on in there, because our drama teacher knew there wasn’t going to be any teaching that day. Some days you just give in gracefully to the inevitable and serve as counselor to those who are waiting to hear the worst. I couldn’t eat for the nausea that clenched my stomach, so we sat along the back counter like a line of gargoyles and stared at the television and wondered how the world could be any worse. Over and over, we watched the first plane hit, watched the second tower hit, watched the Pentagon burn, watched the towers fall. Over and over we watched the faces of those who had barely escaped with their lives.
And watched others enter the wreckage of the towers knowing they’d never walk out again, but hoping they could get others out in their stead.
Fifth period was AP Psych, with a teacher I loved largely for his biting, irreverent and usually downright insulting sense of humor, but he simply took roll and kept the TV on. Said we could analyze it once everyone had heard the necessary news from home. I sat on the floor against one wall and my friend Kristin sat beside me with her arm around my shoulders because by that point I was so cold I was shaking. It wasn’t cold in the classrooms, it was just me. Every time they showed the Pentagon I wanted to look away because somewhere in the midst of those flames was my dad’s office. I didn’t dare look away because what if the camera panned to all the activity outside the building and it showed him alive and well?
Gradually we learned more. The planes had been hi-jacked by terrorists, which at that point was as unfathomable to me as anything else about the day. We heard about Flight 93 and the incredible bravery and sacrifice of those on board. We saw the emergency responders and learned just how few of them were expected to make it back out.
And then my psych teacher was kneeling in front of me with a note from the office in his hand, and he gave me a hug and told me “Your dad’s okay. Dot, your dad is okay. He’s safe.”
And I started sobbing.
It was hours before I could actually talk to him- the lines were so busy there were entire sections of New York and DC that were unreachable by phone.
He’d forgotten his lunch.
Isn’t that a crazy thing? He’d forgotten his lunch and didn’t want to deal with a crowd or rush, so he took an early lunch to go out and get a sandwich to bring back to his office for later. That stupid sandwich saved his life.
The physical and emotional fallout wasn’t limited to that day. It isn’t limited to that week, to that month, to that year. We’re still feeling it. In some ways, we always will. Ten years later, I can still close my eyes and I’m back in that hallway between third and fourth period, still baffled as I watch the second plane fly into the tower.
Everyone has a story to tell about that day. It’s the kind of day that necessarily changes lives, changes people, changes a nation.
As we mark this anniversary and honor those who lost their lives on this day ten years ago, as we recognize all those who lost family and friends, as those of us who got the good news call feel grateful and guilty at once, let us also remember the incredible spirit that bound us together in the wake of this tragedy. Honor and recognize the people, but also the innate human goodness that led to such charity, as aid was rushed in from all over the country and world, as businesses opened their doors. Remember the day the newscasters openly wept and every tiny victory was celebrated. Remember the heroes, because there were so many that day.
And remember, as we honor this day in our past, that there’s so much more to look to in our future.