Sixteen years ago today, as a senior in high school, I sat in English class working on a random assignment when the teacher’s cell phone went off. It was such an unusual thing to happen; cellphones did not go off during class. She took the call and we heard words like “plane” and “trade center.”
She started searching online for information, going to a news outlet’s website. That was my first encounter of turning online for live news coverage. The site had some video footage, but I remember it taking forever to load.
The teacher was alarmed, understanding how serious this was much more than I did. The rest of the day was spent back and forth between classrooms and the school library watching coverage.
There was still a disconnect for me. I knew it was a bad situation, but it was happening far away. I saw a classmate crying and panicking because she couldn’t reach a family member on the phone. It only occurred to me later that, as part of the military, her dad could have been working at the Pentagon or had business at the World Trade Center or something. People lived in a geographical area, and I assumed they worked in that same area. It didn’t compute that people might do lots of traveling for work.
I saw her panic and fear, but I didn’t understand the full impact.
To see the images, to hear the reports, it was like some fantastical experience. A terror group? People willingly flying a plane into a building, purposely trying to kill hundreds of innocent people, knowing they’ll die in the process? What? Why?
But what really stood out to me was the pulling together of the United States. Standing in solidarity.
It was the first time I was eligible to donate blood, and I remember heading to the local Red Cross to give. Flags flew at half mast and people drove with headlights on in broad daylight, as people do in a funeral procession.
The next day in class, our English teacher had us take out our journals to write. She said it was important to record what happened on 9/11/01, not just about the national scene but where we were when it happened. She knew it was the kind of monumental event that we’d want to remember, to have a record.
My entry describes how traffic problems on the way to school that morning should have been seen as an omen for how the rest of the day would unfold. I described being in English class when I heard the news. And then I’m not sure what happened because my entry ended mid sentence. I guess I wrote as much as I could during class and then never thought to finish it.
But as the next few days unfolded and more information was shared, the bigger picture started to become clearer. I didn’t really understand the concept of going to war. What does that look like? That’s the kind of thing you study in history books, something that happens far away in other countries. Not here in the U.S.
Yes, Pearl Harbor was an attack on Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941 and got the United States involved in World War II. But that wasn’t quite the same thing as having an attack in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. For one, Hawaii isn’t part of the continental United States, so the distance makes it seem less threatening. But also, Hawaii didn’t become an official state until 1959, so it still wasn’t technically an attack on the United States in a proper sense. Pearl Harbor was a military base under U.S. control but not the same as part of the official country.
That seemed like a completely different kind of scenario because Pearl Harbor and Hawaii weren’t part of the continental United States. But this attack was in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania. It was much closer.
Again, I took to writing in poetry form. This was penned on Sept. 16, 2001. I remember feeling clever for coming up with an acronym for war. Maybe retaliation or revenge seemed too harsh at the time. Or I just didn’t want to think of more innocent people being in harm’s way through more violence.
It’s been 16 years. Never forget.
We Are Responding
Infinite power from three small letters
Exemplifying strength and weakness in endless numbers.
Explosions of smoke
Fogging before our paralyzed eyes.
Half-drawn flags flying free.
Gun shots crackling our security.
Headlights blaring against the sun.
Innocent lives dragged to the front
Forced to stand without reassurance.
Thousands of volunteers among police
And firefighters sorting through debris.
Comprised of bags under concerned eyes.
Flooded blood centers.
Something we shouldn’t face.
Bombs of peace should be fired
Nor tears of forfeit.
A new way of life: fear.
We are responding.