|Ground Zero, May 2007|
"That day was such a weird day. It almost even seems like a dream, although I know it was real. That's the scary part: It was real."I sat in my junior high cafeteria one May night in 2002 and watched Emily step to the front of the stage and speak these words, words that I had written for our eighth grade drama production.
My classmates and I had worked all semester, writing and rehearsing original skits for the play that we titled "The Age of ME by US": stories centered around our own experience of middle school, of early teenage life, of pitfalls and awkwardness and friendships. The simple stage set consisted of our everyday: a pair of lockers and a few desks. Everyone wore their own clothes. And it had been decided that my piece would open the show, because nothing defined our eighth grade year like September 11.
I was sitting in the audience that night because I'd just returned from a month out of school with pneumonia. The piece I'd written was a monologue, but we all agreed that it would be cooler if voices faded in and out, blending, everyone claiming the story. That wasn't hard to do; nearly all of us had shared that bright blue autumn morning in third period Chorus. Only the day before, we had been practicing a spiritual called "The Heavenly Aeroplane." It began: One of these nights about twelve o'clock, the old world's going to reel and rock, the sinner's gonna tremble and cry for pain, and the Lord will come in his aeroplane. Needless to say, we never sang it again.
I gazed up at my classmates, about fifteen of them, their eyes fixed on Emily as she spoke, standing silently with arms by their sides.
"As I walked into third period Chorus, my teacher seemed very distressed. She snapped at us to sit down and watch the television. She said that the World Trade Center had been attacked, and so had the Pentagon. Attacked - such a foreign word to me, to all Americans, that it must have been a joke."Emily's voice faded out, she stepped back, and Tina stepped forward. "But for the next hour, as all of us watched the terror unfolding live before our eyes, we discovered that the carnage couldn't have been more of a reality. Craning our necks to see the television, we heard the voice of a reporter describing what she saw inside a public school near the Twin Towers. There was no loud talk today, no laughing, and no smiling. And amidst the tears and soft whispers going on around me, I heard my teacher say, 'Oh my God,' and we turned to see one of the towers begin to collapse."
In and out, in and out, the voices of my classmates spoke my words, the stage lights falling softly on each speaker. Kelly. Elisa. Liam. Alyssa. Martha. Hila. Brandon. Maia. On and on. The cafeteria full of parents and teachers sat in silence.
"Soon we heard that a plane had crashed in Pennsylvania, but it hadn't hit anything. My friend was saying that since it seemed that they were heading South - whoever 'they' may be, we didn't know yet - they would hit us next. There were rumors about the Mall of America in Minnesota being bombed, and a car bomb in front of the State Department in Washington, D.C."To be honest, in eighth grade, I knew absolutely nothing about these places. The Mall of America? I'd never heard of it. The State Department sounded like it was probably a pretty important place. I had never thought much about the Pentagon; that was one site we didn't get to on our sixth grade D.C. trip. And to be extra honest, I don't recall ever hearing of the World Trade Center before I walked into class that day. But there it all was. Seared. So suddenly.
"Students were being sent to the counselors' office right and left, and panic seemed to ensue as we continued to watch, seeing the second tower come down, knowing that all of the people in that monstrous, grand building were dying. We didn't know what was happening, who had committed these horrendous crimes, and what they were planning to do next. All the security that I had felt only fifty minutes before had collapsed with the towers, and now seemed to be lying in the rubble of what would soon be known as 'Ground Zero.'"For the first time in my life, it felt like I really had no idea what was going to happen next - that day, that week, for the rest of time. At one point, when the TV coverage and my classmates' anxious chattering got to be too much, I clamped my hands over my ears, bent over and closed my eyes, humming Psalm 23. It was all I had. It seemed too much, for life to change so fast like this. I was 13; there were supposed to be little jumps into growing up, not immense death and destruction more real than any crush or fight or homework assignment. But maybe what the years between then and now have taught me is that I was blessed to still have the innocence to think that way. There are so many children who don't.
"The bell rang, and it was a terribly surreal feeling to be walking through the halls like usual, but knowing that something horrific and shocking had happened, something that had changed the lives of all the people walking around me. My friend was talking about her aunts who live on Long Island - she hoped they were okay, and she was so nervous. I remember saying, 'I will be so pissed off if anyone is laughing about this.'"I remember thinking, goody-two-shoes that I am, I'm totally allowed to say "pissed off" at school in this situation. "Pissed off" is something adults say. This day has made me more of an adult. And that wasn't a good thing, but it wasn't a bad thing. It was just the out-of-the-blue truth. I had aged since breakfast that morning. My mind comprehended horrific possibilities that (at least to me, to most of us) were never possible until I walked into that classroom.
"We got to fourth period Health, and our teacher said that America had been very, very lucky up until now. This happens every day in other parts of the world, he reminded us, and we are just getting a taste of what they experience. Instead of having class, we went back down to the chorus room to watch the television. I couldn't stand it. After asking permission, I fled to the counselors' office. As I walked in, I heard teachers talking."My classmates continued onstage, passing my words back and forth, collective memory hanging above our heads, brighter than the spotlight.
"One teacher said that Israeli troops had surrounded Jerusalem and would not let anyone get out, in case the people responsible were from there. My heart filled up, knowing that other nations were willing to help us; maybe some good will come out of this terrible thing, I thought. I was ushered into a meeting room where a few other girls from my class were, with one of the counselors. Some were crying, and I can't remember exactly what I did in there. If I spoke, or if I just sat there, it's gone. But afterwards, the counselor led me into her office, privately. I told her about how scary the situation was, and how I was nervous about more attacks coming. She said that her husband had told her that all airplanes had been grounded and that the only aircrafts in the sky at the moment were those of the Air Force. While that made me feel a little more comfortable, I was still very uneasy. We talked through all of fourth period, which made me relieved, since I hardly wanted to go back to that television that had brought me so much fear."I hear my 13-year-old self so much in these words, seeking simplicity and goodness, wanting that innocence back. Needing - as I often do still - confirmation that I will be okay. Because to this day, just hearing it from another person outside of myself makes me breathe better. Because yes, sometimes I need that guise of certainty just to go about my everyday life.
"My fifth period teacher was in the office when I came out, and we walked to her class together. Ironically, this was the day that we took our test on the American government. During lunch, people kept being called out of the cafeteria to be checked out by their parents. The security guards had their walkie-talkies and I remember thinking that they were going to announce another attack or something. Inside this room, everything seemed fine, but outside, everything was extremely wrong."The night before 9/11, my mom and I went for an evening walk on the school track. (We lived within walking distance.) It was an early fall night, crisp but not cold. In the sky, I noticed the lights of airplanes, but I didn't hear anything; their monotonous hum was as normal to me as birdsong. But in the days following, I would hear the buzz and my stomach would clench. I would look up to make sure the plane wasn't flying too low.
"When I got to sixth period, I asked my teacher if I could call my mother, to tell her that my Drama Club meeting was canceled for the day, due to 'everything.' Even though I tried to call her cell phone, she didn't answer, and as I was walking out of the front office, in she came, my brother in tow. She asked me if I'd like to go home, and I said yes. I went and gathered my things from French, and left with her."In college, I was able to visit Ground Zero (pre-memorial) and the Pentagon. At both sites I stood, rendered speechless and so very small at the thought that I was standing directly on top of unspeakable carnage, the hope and courage that rose above it, and the very strange in-between world that we live in now. Standing within the places that grew me up as they fell to the ground, that made me doubt and speak and learn and seek and love, all with a twinge of I've only got Now, who knows what's next. I'll admit I still can't fully grasp that; the logical, practical part of me does, most days. The rest of me believes I have all the time in the world.
"At home, I was trying to forget about everything that had happened, so I actually took a nap. Listening to one of my favorite CDs, I tried to block out everything, but it was still there, still fresh. That night, I watched President Bush address the nation. I was afraid he'd declare war on someone or a country, but he didn't. My parents said that was because he didn't know who to declare war on in the first place. I don't remember anything else from that night. I just felt different: vulnerable and unprotected, just like everyone else in America at that moment in time, I guess."I saw Emily, who began the monologue, for the first time in years only last month. I was leaving the diner after Sunday brunch and there she was, a few tables away. I would know her anywhere; I think I would know her anywhere no matter what, but perhaps especially because of a blue-skied September morning and all that followed. Her eyes widened and she smiled, motioned me over, we hugged, did the thirty-second catch up of life. She's just finished law school, she introduced me to her fianc. It makes me smile. Life is happening.
And on the stage in 2002, eighth grade Emily stepped forward and recited the end of my piece.
"It's been eight months since this happened," she said that night, and tonight I say it's been twelve years. "We have lived one day at a time, because we never know what will come next. And even if we are scared or uneasy at times, we are all survivors."Survivors. It doesn't have quite the right ring to it, especially now that I know a 12-year chunk of the continuing story. I don't feel like a survivor; all I did was watch a horrific event on TV, and then for me, life slowly returned to normal. With no loved ones in the wounded cities or in the military, I've lost far less than those who have sacrificed their lives, or their families. I've grieved, questioned, worried, sure. But I'm no survivor.
And then I think of the fear from that day, the wild upsetting of everything that held my ideas of freedom and safety, the breaking of something far larger than two towers. I think of getting up to go to school the day after it happened, and the day after that, and forward. I think of getting on an airplane less than a year later, my first international flight, and loving it. I think of the freedom I still have, thank God, to dictate my own life, the steady struggle of building myself. On September 11, I thought that fear turned me into an adult. But it's all of life that has guided my growth - rich experiences, the goodness of people, risks and new steps. That day was a part of it, but there's been so much more.
We aren't simply surviving. We are living. And that is our greatest tribute.