Two days after my ninth birthday, and on the tenth birthday of a close friend, my classmates and I walked into our fourth grade classroom – after lunch? after recess? The activity almost escapes me now, because it is overshadowed by what came next. Our new teacher – new to us because of the new year and new to the school – was sitting at her desk. She abruptly stood up when we all walked in, and ushered us to our seats like teachers do when vivacious students come back from an outside-of-the-classroom activity. Her face was blotchy and red, her hands were shaking. Once we had all managed to quiet down, she told us all something many of us (definitely me) took for granted at the moment.
“When each of you go home today after school, give your parents, siblings, loved ones the biggest hugs you’ve ever given them. Tell them you love them, and hug them again.”
Now even as an adult, I have not been able to achieve a stoic appearance when I think something is wrong or weird or annoying. My eyes get bigger than they normally are, sometimes they roll, and my eyebrows rise up on my big forehead and my lips purse in a sarcastic, crooked line. That was my reaction to our teacher’s two sentence speech. At nine, I was concerned that she looked worn down, like she just stopped crying, but I didn’t think anything more of it.
The next piece of this memory skips ahead to when I step down off the bus and onto my parent’s front lawn. Walking through the front door, I was excited to find out what my mom had made for an after school snack – wait a minute, where is my sister? My sister is void from this memory, which is strange as she is only two years my junior, and I think she should have been on the bus. I won’t dwell on this now, though I find it intriguing. My mom was watching TV and folding laundry – still one of my fondest parts about coming home: Sitting with her and watching her fold and pretending not to watch General Hospital from the other side of the couch.
On this day though, no soap opera was being played out. Instead, two towers that I had almost no connection with were centered on the screen, smoke and flames billowing out of their beams and windows. I watched for a few seconds, then asked why General Hospital wasn’t on. My mom explained to me carefully, that those towers had just been hit by two airplanes eight hours south of us, in New York City.
I remember seeing the haunting front page of a local newspaper the next day, and then hearing that another teacher in our school had a child or children working in the Pentagon, although they were unharmed when it was attacked. I also remember the strangeness of now celebrating my friend’s birthday in the midst of this chaos. We held our own candlelight vigil in her parent’s driveway, and then went on with the party. At nine, I had never experienced severe tragedy, and I felt so disconnected from the one our nation was facing. As photos of people fleeing the collapsing towers and stories and documentaries came out in the days and years that followed, I couldn’t, and still can’t, imagine what those individuals were feeling. For those firefighters, first responders, and civilians who helped people out of the towers as they were falling, how different are their lives? In that time of vulnerability, how lucky were we that we had those people who didn’t hesitate to step up to risk their lives for those that were directly, and indirectly under attack?
Often I wonder how different our world would be if September 11th was just another day. I wonder about the child who lost a parent, the woman who lost a husband, the mother who lost a child. I won’t do them injustice by dwelling on the “what ifs,” because I can’t imagine the heartbreak they experience [again] when those two words cross their minds. Instead, I’ll share my story of my whereabouts on that day, I’ll remember the people who selflessly reacted to our country being attacked, and I’ll remember the innocent not as victims, but as individuals with loved ones who wish they could see and hug and talk to again. And, I’ll hug mine just a little bit tighter.