I’ve never written about 9/11 before because it just sort of seemed superfluous. Everyone had a story, everyone had a perspective and mine didn’t seem to matter that much. Others had lost so much more, been changed so much more by what happened. What could I have to say?
But now I work with teens who will learn about 9/11 as a historical event that took place before they were born.
It seems like maybe the moment is right to share what I remember.
Where I was, what I was doing.
I was a senior in high school, a few months away from my 18th birthday.
I had just finished my first class of the day – orchestra. We wound up 10 or so minutes early so we all had time to put our instruments away, and as we stood in groups near the door my friend Andy walked out of Mr. Fordice, the choir director’s, office which was attached to the classroom and said, “Mrs. Fordice just called. A plane hit one of the twin towers.”
“That’s weird.” I said.
The bell rang.
We left for our next class.
We had both just been to NYC a few short months before on our music department trip. We had climbed to the crown of the Statue of Liberty. They don’t let you do that anymore. We’d seen a few Broadway shows and toured Time Square. Wandered around Central Park. But we didn’t have any concept at that moment what or where the Twin Towers were. It would only be days later when we started flipping through our rolls of pictures we’d taken that we’d realize – the Towers loomed in the background of almost half the shots.
We walked down the hall, idly wondering what kind of dumb ass pilot crashes his plane into a building.
We started to pass the film study room with the enormous wall sized television and both stopped dead in our tracks as we watched the image of the second plane hitting the other tower. Another 4 seconds and we would have missed it. But there we were, staring at a column of smoke and fire. A growing feeling that something really terrible had just happened. We realized there were students behind us, entranced like we were. We didn’t hear the bell ring again, it wasn’t until the teachers started telling us to go to class that we stumbled back down the hall.
We didn’t get in trouble for being late.
No one got in trouble that day.
Second period was AP English, the last class where the teachers attempted to hold our attention. “We don’t know what’s happening yet,” we were told by teachers who were surely as terrified as we were. “Let’s just continue on as normal.”
Halfway through second period, Sarah C got called out of class to go meet her parents. Her older sister went to Columbia in NYC and they hadn’t heard from her. At that point my teacher gave up and just turned on the news, which seemed to be full of smoke and panic and dread.
Third period I had a Sociology test. After we were finished we were allowed to go next door to sit with that class and watch the news unfold. Seconds before I turned in my paper, the Pentagon was hit.
Sixth period I had choir, and about a quarter of the class was gone, pulled out by parents who wanted their kids home with them. It was the only class where we didn’t watch the news, where we didn’t swap rumors about wars and attacks and how we were all going to die in a nuclear blaze. “We need to sing today,” my director said, “we need to sing for us.” And so we did. We didn’t rehearse, we sang. We sang America the Beautiful and Ave Maria. We sang Bridge over Troubled Water and Joshua Fit the Battle of Jerico. We sang the music we loved to sing and we sang the music our souls needed right then. In times of trouble we always seem to fall back on the power of the human voice.
In seventh period I had Government, and we tried to put things into perspective. To sort out what we actually knew and what we didn’t. My teacher tried to keep us from blaming people we didn’t know anything about, to keep us from being so scared. There was a lot of talk about how we were a target, in our little Iowa town, because of the John Deere plant. I rolled my eyes at that. It seemed everyone was either over or under reacting. The kids at school, the people on tv, the teachers I looked up to, everyone was either convinced the entire world was about to end, or shrugging like this wasn’t a big deal at all. I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel, but I was pretty sure I was somewhere in the middle.
In the back of all this was the reality that I was a senior. Many of us were already 18 years old. And in my little corner of the world a large percentage of the guys enrolled in the Reserves to pay their way through college. Go to boot camp, serve a few weekends. It seemed like a really great deal on September 10. As school let out word filtered in. Justin had gotten orders and was shipping off next week. Ryan’s orders were changed and he was heading to Afghanistan too. Suddenly, everyone I knew knew someone going to war. Including me. One of my good friends would leave only a few weeks later.
At eighteen you feel invincible. At eighteen you feel like nothing could ever touch you. The most dramatic thing we were supposed to have to deal with was casting for the musical and who got elected Homecoming King. Of course, this isn’t true. There are always bad things going on. And as a middle-class white girl who was still in the closet at the point, I was/am enormously privileged and shielded from many of the bad things. I know that. I sort of knew that then, but it didn’t change the feeling that our lives had been turned upside down and we didn’t know what the future would hold.
The lines for the gas stations were around the block, everyone terrified of a gas shortage and skyrocketing prices. I showed up for work at Target and was sent home almost immediately. Only the managers stayed. There were no customers in the store. Everyone was at home in front of the television.
I don’t remember talking to either of my parents about what was happening. Maybe we did, maybe we didn’t. I had been planning to move to New York, I guess that’s when I decided not to. The news was already peppered with stories of Arab Americans being attacked, which was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. But my town was ridiculously white and I only knew one Muslim kid, so I had a pretty limited view of what fear could do to people. Through all my memories of my own fear and confusion, I have no memory of what that week must have been like for him. Was he bullied? Threatened? Did anyone at school make a thing out of it? I don’t remember, which is one of the clearest examples of my own privilege I can think of. I hope that he wasn’t, that if he had been I would have been brave enough to say something. I hope, but I don’t remember. I wish that I did.
My friends and I dealt with it the way we dealt with everything. With music. I was asked to sing America the Beautiful in a quartet for the school over the intercom after the nationwide moment of silence. Andy was in a band and they wrote a song. I added the string parts. We performed it for the school. And we recorded it, so I have it these fifteen years later. We were pretty good, for a high school band.
In the days that followed there was a lot of talk of patriotism from members of the government. We were encouraged to wear red white and blue. Rhetoric shifted to us vs them. French Fries became Freedom Fries, as if the french had anything to do with this. And suddenly everyone was more afraid, or at least they let their fear show and motivate them to do terrible things. It was as if the world lost a bit of it’s innocence just as I was shedding it too. It became our generation’s JFK. Where were you? We’d ask each other. Where were you? What were you doing?
And while there is a lot about what surrounded and followed that day that I’d like us to move away from, it feels right to pause and acknowledge the heroes that gave their lives, the lives that were lost, the lives that were changed forever. And it feels okay to acknowledge that all our lives were changed that day, even if just a little. The day the towers fell.