The first thing that comes to mind when I think of 9/11 was how much I was dreading the rest of the day from the second it began. Every morning before our lesson we would write in our journals for a couple of minutes, and in trying to comfort myself about the next seven hours of schoolwork I wrote about how the sky seemed to be the perfect shade of blue that day. I must’ve gotten through half a page when this lady walks into the room, and whispers in my teacher’s ear. She looked back at her quizzically then they both turned and looked out the window, trying to be discreet about it. When a few kids noticed what they were doing and started looking too, they were told to focus on their work.
It was weird but I put it out of my mind and kept writing, distracted suddenly, when the phone rang. One of my friends was being picked up by his mom. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, kids got picked up all the time. We started our lesson, but got interrupted ten minutes later by another phone call. One more kid going home. My teacher kept trying to get through the lesson but the phone kept ringing and kids kept getting sent down to the office, each one of them smiling as they left like they’d won the lottery.
We had lunch at noon, and I remember walking into the cafeteria pretty floored by how much more chaotic than normal everything was. A bunch of teachers walking around, people whispering everywhere, the PA system reading out names of kids they couldn’t reach in the classrooms. Some parents didnt even wait for the office to make the call. My friend’s mom came rushing into the cafeteria, grabbed her son in one arm, and took my friend in the other, but a couple of us stopped her before she could leave and asked her what was happening.
“The twin towers fell.”
I thought I was dreaming. How could they fall? What happened? How did it happen? Who did it? Did you see it? But she was gone before any of us could form any kind of reaction, much less respond to what we’d heard. We asked the teachers but noone would tell us anything, asked kids from other classes but they were as clueless as we were. I don’t know how but we all managed to get back up to class after a lunch nobody ate, and with the phone still ringing every five minutes, my teacher gave up, handed out some board games and proceeded to let us have the most fun, laid-back school day we’d ever had. There were maybe four of us left by that afternoon. I found out later my mom hadn’t gotten me because she was running all over Astoria picking up my other siblings. The bus dropped me off, I walked home, and stepped into the living room where my mom was trying to flip through the channels trying to get one that wasn’t all static. She finally found a functioning spanish channel and we watched a replay of the second plane hit the tower.
My mom stared at me in horrified disbelief.
“…What? No, that’s not cool. Do you not understand what this is??”
Of course not. How could I. How could anyone imagine anything like this. I was still hoping against everything that all I’d seen was a movie trailer, some sick joke, a beautifully executed hoax on the entire city. The denial didn’t leave me until the other networks came back, when they showed the walls full of posters of the faces who were unaccounted for. The shrines on every street corner, the God Bless America bumper stickers on every car on the BQE. All these little things from everyone that put everything else in perspective.. made me realize I wasn’t okay. These strangers had attacked my home.. our home. I felt an attachment to people I didn’t even know, cried for the faces I saw on the newspapers, for their spouses, their kids, their friends. My eyes would follow every plane in the sky, watching to make sure nothing happened, bracing myself in case I had to be the one to call if something went wrong, warn the police so that noone else had to get hurt.
There was one thing that helped me though, as silly as it seems, it was this political cartoon I saw. Two squares full of people, in one of them everyone wearing shirts that said “Greek-American”, “Italian-American”, “African-American”, “Indian-American”; and in the other, everyone’s shirt just said, “American”. The before and after of 9/11, united now to help each other overcome in spite of all the differences that had divided us. As terrifying as 9/11 was, it was seeing the good in people’s hearts afterwards that gave me hope and made healing possible.