What I Remember
10 years ago today, I was just coming down from the high of my 13th birthday & ready for an average day of 8th Grade. I can’t recall what period of school it was – 2nd or 3rd, I think – but the class was Social Studies with Mr. F. Mr. F was an interesting teacher. He’d assign us these really huge, detailed projects, & often had us do our reading in class at our own pace. With his full white beard, red face & short, round stature, he looked just like a leprechaun. In fact, he’d dress up as one every St. Patrick’s Day. He was involved in a ton of school-wide events & projects, & his booming voice commanded attention & respect. I think pretty much the whole school simultaneously loved & feared him, even the principals. He really swung between the extremes, jolly grandpa figure & serious disciplinarian.
That particular morning, Mr. F was just serious. But it wasn’t his strict, “shut up & read your textbook!” kind of serious. This was grave — his face was washed out & he was acting frantic & jittery. He wasn’t focused at all on our class, & he kept getting calls from the administrative office. Eventually, he was called out of the classroom & another teacher came in to supervise us. Something big was definitely going down.
Maybe halfway through our class, a TV was rolled into our room. The teacher put on the news for us; there was an attack in New York. Planes were being flown into buildings.
It didn’t hit me at first. This stuff wasn’t real. Skyscrapers blow up in movies all the time, but not in real life. This massacring of the NYC skyline was all fake, Hollywood special effects. But the longer I watched the footage, the more reality began to set in. Reality was terrifying.
Then we found out why Mr. F was as panicked as he was. 2 of his kids were supposed to be in the area near the World Trade Center that day, & he couldn’t get in touch with either of them to see if they were alright. (Fortunately, they were both unharmed.) Because of that, we were the first class in the school to be told what was happening. By midday, everyone knew.
Rumors started flying from all over. I don’t remember too many of them. I think it was just a lot of stupid stuff, or stuff I didn’t want to hear because I was still trying to convince myself it was all part of a bad movie. There was a lot of speculation over whether they’d let school out early or not (they didn’t.) But the rumor that really scared me was that Philadelphia was going to be attacked next. At the time, the theory made a lot of sense to my naive, confused brain. If a terrorist group was “making a statement” against American culture, they’d have plenty of reasons to target Philly. It is the birthplace of our nation, the original capitol, home to Independence Hall & the Declaration of Independence, nestled conveniently between New York & Washington DC.
It’s silly now, but I was shaken to the core with paranoia at the time. We live so close to Philly — would we see the plane zoom down? Smell the smoke? Feel the shake of impact? What about my dad, who worked just outside the city? Or, even worse, my sister Caitlin, who was a freshman at a college in the city? In the next few hours, days, weeks, anything could happen. I didn’t feel safe, & I wouldn’t again for about a month.
Home was very weird that night. When my little sister Annie and I walked home from the bus stop, we found Mom waiting for us on the front porch. I knew she was there to see how we were doing, but as we approached, she said something that almost made me faint on the spot.
“Did you know your uncle works in the World Trade Center?”
“He’s okay; he wasn’t in the building when the crash happened.”
What a fucking lead-in. Seriously, she couldn’t have prefaced with the “he’s okay” bit?
After my near-cardiac arrest, we had a major hug-fest. I didn’t want anyone to leave my sight for the rest of the night.
Turned out my sisters didn’t have it any easier than me. Caitlin was only a college freshman, on her own for the first time for only a couple of weeks at that point. Annie was in the same boat as me, maybe even more confused, being a year younger & not having received the in-class news coverage I did. Kelly probably had it the worst, though. She was a junior at a new high school that hadn’t opened yet, so she had that day off. She got to sleep in ’til around 8, when Annie & I had already left for school, Dad off at work & Mom out running errands.
Imagine what it must have felt like for her to wake up & turn on the TV at 8 on the morning of September 11, 2001. There was nothing but news reports about the plane that flew into the North Tower, smoke & screams & chaos, terror in the reporters’ voices. Then, as the camera holds on a shot of the destruction, a second plane zips into frame and strikes the South Tower.
This was before cell phones were commonplace & definitely before social media was a viable tool for the average American. She had no way of contacting our parents. She was completely alone, stuck with the haunting images onscreen. I don’t envy her experience in the least.
That attack on Philadelphia never did pan out, so after maybe a month I finally relaxed a bit. But there was more permanent change. That was the first time I started paying attention to the news, despite dreading what I might hear. Have they uncovered any new details? Made any arrests? Would we be going to war? It was all unpleasant, & probably too morbid for a 13 year old. But it was life now.
Thankfully, there was a bright side. For every unsettling recap of the damage, every shadowy image of Osama bin Laden, every heartbreaking soundbite from a tearful survivor, there was something beautiful that filled me with hope. The footage of the Star-Spangled Banner flying over businesses & highways all over the nation; the triumphant strains of patriotic songs, old & new; the heroic stories about firefighters and police officers risking their own lives to bring others to safety. These were the things I’d cling to, the things I wanted to pop inside my mind when I thought about that day. But mostly I wanted to remember the way that everyone across the United States, people from all walks of life, people with vastly different beliefs, came together. United We Stand — these words were true for that moment in time.
The difference between 13 and 23 is not just 10 years, & I’m a completely changed person from who I was then. But one thing that has remained is my strong sense of patriotism. As much as I complain about the government or society, I really do love the United States. I’m proud of my fellow Americans who prove, day after day, that we can still call our nation the Home of the Brave.
United We Stand.