Today is an important day in our country. It is a day of remembrance and recognition for the lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001 when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked by terrorists. Today we pause to consider the events that occurred on that day.
Usually on Sept. 11, I am silent. I tend not to talk about it and I avoid the Facebook memes and images of the towers with the statement “We will never forget.” Everyone grieves in their own way, and everyone has his or her own experience of that day, and perhaps that is why I remain silent. For me, the effect was profound, but for others, the day means something different.
Just like thousands across the world, I will never forget where I was on 9/11/01. Working on my master’s degree in Laramie, Wyoming, I lived in a basement room in a house with three other college students. As a night owl, I had been up late the night before preparing for class. I was trying to sleep in, but commotion upstairs woke me. I heard the radio blasting and I felt confusion and chaos in the house. The telltale squeak of the stairs alerted me to my roommate’s presence. Having the only TV in the house, Maria asked me to turn it on. “Something’s happened,” she said as I sat up in bed. “Can we turn on the TV?” I could tell from her voice that it was serious.
I scrambled for the remote and clicked it on. The image of the World Trade Center towers came on the screen. One tower was smoking and the ticker tape across the screen announced that an airplane had crashed into the tower. Our conversation joined those of the reports: Was this an accident? Was this on purpose? What’s happening?
Then, in our horror, a second plane crashed into the other tower, spewing flames and debris through the sky. Maria & I both gasped and instantly, I was in tears. Maria sat on the bed as I called my mom to see if she was watching. She was.
New York was her home state. She had spent her childhood in Greece, NY, a small town near Rochester. We still had family there. As far as we knew, thankfully, our family was safe. I did not know of anyone who died in the buildings, but just like everyone else, I recognized that our world had just changed.
The hardest part of that day for me was having to face my students. As a second-year graduate teaching assistant for the English department, I taught one course each semester. That day, I was scheduled to teach at noon. I had no idea what to say or what to do in class. I simply decided that we would talk and I would do what I could to help my students.
In the classroom, my students talked of the events in hushed tones as I entered the classroom. I sat on one of the desks and I listened to my students as they each talked about how they felt.
One student walked in late, apologized, and then took her seat in the back of the classroom. Quickly, I realized she didn’t know what had happened. “What’s happened?” she asked, and all of the students looked at me. They didn’t know how to tell her that two terrorists had just killed thousands of people and the New York skyline was forever changed. It was up to me—I was the adult in the room. I was in charge. No matter how much I didn’t want to, I had to tell her what had happened.
She screamed and cried. “Oh my god!” She grabbed her cell phone and dialed as she explained, “My family is there. My uncle works there! Oh my god!” Of course, the circuits were busy and she couldn’t get through to anyone. “I have to go.” I nodded and gave her a hug as she left.
I wondered where she was going and what she thought she could do, but I didn’t ask; I let her go assuring her that she could come to me if she needed.
A few days later she came to my office. She withdrew from school, and she still could not reach her family. “I don’t know if they’re alive or dead,” she said to me in my office. “I have to go home. I don’t know what to do. I have a flight into Jersey tomorrow. I can’t even get home.”
That was the last time I saw her.
Every Sept. 11 I wonder where she is, who is alive and who is dead in her family. That moment changed her life forever in a way that mine did not. My life carried on. I taught. I studied. I graded. I spoke with my family. That day belongs to her and people like her–it belongs to those who lost loved ones. Yes, I grieve in a way, but most of all, I am here for my students…to help them process these life-changing events…to help them find their place in this ever-changing world. And sometimes, all it takes is listening.