Today we remember the lives lost and affected by the events of September 11, 2001. I remember that day because it was bizarre, horrifying and I just didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand it at all and now that I do it profoundly affects me as an American, a New Yorker and just as a person.
I was eleven years old, had just started seventh grade and was in the middle of my class’ regular torturing of our English teacher. Our class was so misbehaved, or the entire seventh grade rather, that Mr. Ratzenberger was our third English teacher in six weeks because teachers could not “handle” us. We made them cry.
A week before, my dad, who works at Lincoln Center, had received all of these tiny transistor radios that were given out at a press event to promote Bloomberg Radio. They only picked up that station and for some reason on September 11, 2001 I thought it would be a good idea to bring it to school as some kind of distraction. These were the days before smartphones and most kids didn’t even have cell phones.
That morning I was sitting next to my BFF, Heidi and I turned the radio on. The class was noisy, loud, unruly, throwing crumbled up paper, shouting, cussing the teacher out—my turning on the radio didn’t cause the least bit disturbance.
“The twin tower has collapsed,” a voice mumbled. Heidi says, “This is fake.” “The second tower has been hit,” the voice said. “This isn’t real, why are they doing this?” Heidi said.
It didn’t sound real at all. Suddenly the principal was calling names for students to report to the office. He said their parents had arrived to pick them up. A few minutes later there were more names being called. Then he announced that there had been “an act of terror.” A few minutes later my name was called and my mom was there. She took me home and we watched towers collapse on television.
“Your father works downtown, he could be in danger,” she said. I didn’t understand what was happening. I knew that something bad had happened, I could see the images of people falling from the towers but it wasn’t registering. At eleven years old I was more excited to have a free day off of school than to sit down and contemplate that the country and city I was born in was under attack.
It seemed to unreal. How were the images of burning towers any different than the ones I had seen in movies and video games? At the time it just felt like the same violence I had always seen. It felt so distant from me and reality.
But when we went back to school there was this horrible tension. My BFF, who was a total nerd, who would go onto be valedictorian, was bullying our classmates who “looked Muslim,” meaning anyone wearing a sari or head scarf who could have very well been of any other culture. She would whisper as they walked down the stairs, in their ears, “Terrorist, terrorist…”
This behavior caught me off guard because my friend wasn’t the kind of person to bully anybody, suddenly I knew that something had changed. Her reaction, with so much visceral anger, made what had happened register. Lives were gone, people were mercilessly killed for reasons unjustifiable. Families would be broken. Prejudices were created. Our country would fight a war.
What happened that day may not have directly affected your family, and consider yourself lucky, but it forever changed this country. I didn’t lose anyone that day but I gained a respect for the men and women who risked their lives providing services to those in need.
I learned the difference between the imaginary violence I see everyday in popular culture and what real violence, what real terror is and how it can transform the way we treat other people when we are exposed to it. In the United States we have so much comfort, safety and privilege but in an instant those things can be taken away, all that we have left is how we choose to react to tragedy. Some will choose animosity and hostility, I choose solidarity and compassion.
Where were you on September 11, 2001? Share your story.