Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years

Where were you?

It is a simple question, three little words. Profound in their meaning. No one really needs to ask about the implied time; everyone in the US knows the question references September 11, 2001.

I have always brushed it off, never really feeling that I had a right to answer the question. The few times that I did answer, I felt selfish, as if I were trying to take a part of that day for myself. It took awhile for me to stop feeling like a bystander at a car wreck and realize that, as Americans, that little question was a way to bring people together. We are a nation of people, bystanders and victims, but a country united as one entity. We are the United States of America and the attack was not just one city, not just one state, but across the country. Our country, as a whole, was the victim. Just as every citizen has the right to ask this question, every person has the right to answer, to claim a part of that day.

It was a Tuesday, a normal school day. I was in my freshmen year, just beginning my final year in my junior high building (this was before the school district restructured and expanded the high schools to accommodate all students). Our Beta Club meeting had just concluded, the first of the school buses arriving to drop students off for the first class.

A student rushed in, panting, and told us his bus driver had the radio on, like normal, and the music was interrupted with a breaking news report - a plane had hit a World Trade Center tower!

"Is this a joke?" our teacher had asked. We were starting to laugh it off, nothing like that could be real.

"No! And it wasn't an accident, either! Turn on the news!" He was flustered and rather persistent, so our teacher picked up the remote. She turned on the news just as news of the second plane hits broadcast. The babble between students suddenly hushes and we stare, unable to comprehend fully. What was going on?

The teacher, pale, turned off the television and told us to get to class. First bell began to ring and we rushed into the halls. When the final bell rang to signal class to begin, an announcement came over the PA for all teachers to check their email. The school district's policy is to notify only the teachers and faculty of events, in an attempt to keep from causing the students to panic.

The email informed the teachers of events and ordered them to leave the televisions and radios turned off. The school was quietly put on lock-down, as well.

There were no regular classes that day. Every teacher, and I mean every teacher - of mine, at least - gathered the class for discussion. They did not feel it was right to keep such breaking news and world events from us.

"It does not protect you and can only hurt you more."

Every classroom I attended that day had some form of paperclip, wire hanger, tin foil, or craft wire antenna reaching to the windows; part of the lock-down included turning off the cable to the building, per the internal superintendent's personal discretion. We watched the news coverage on static-filled screens as CNN's broadcast was relayed through local networks.

Fifth hour began as it always did: with lunch ended, the weekly school news and reports were read over the PA by selected office aides after the pledge of allegiance was said. I was a teacher's assistant to the keyboarding teacher and typically used the class hour as a study hall, stopping my homework only to help pass out papers or take attendance.

Every student, through any tears or fears, stood to say the Pledge. Every student except four. I am not being racist when I say these four were loud-mouth, laughing, prideful Mexicans. Whether their parents were illegal or not, they proclaimed themselves Mexican citizens above all else and laughed through the entire Pledge. The teacher did not like this, not one bit.

"It is a dishonor and rude," she began, her temper flaring hotter than any I had seen.

"But why should we say the stupid pledge?" was the summation of their argument.

"You do not have to say the Pledge, but you will DAMN WELL sit silent and respectful while those that choose to speak, do so!" Her language rapidly fell below public standards as a full five minute speech flew off her tongue to lash the four students sitting before her.

When she stopped talking, those of us not the target of her words, clapped. Well, a few of us did. Then she asked another question: Why do you laugh?

"Because America got attacked."

I still smile when I think of her response. It is something I have never heard a teacher say to a student before or since.

"Are you really so fucking dumb and stupid? Where are you living? Where are you currently sitting? You are in America." The students blanched. "What do you think would happen if the attacks were spread out farther than just New York? Dallas is a pretty big city and a rather fine target - there is an international airport located right here. What makes you think that we do not merit the attention of these terrorists? How safe would you be, laughing your ass off, if a bomb exploded around here?"

Silence. Priceless silence.

The remainder of this class went just like the rest: discussion and television watching. When the final bell rang, signalling the end of the school day, we shuffled out to the waiting school buses in a mixture of emotions. Some students were laughing, but they were the strange ones with a fascination with the military and were excited at the prospect of war. Many were still in shock and confusion reigned their face as they talked to one another. Some pretended things were alright and went about their business.

One student in particular still clings to my memory. We were on the bus ride home and she sat crying in her seat. Voices of those excited for war surrounded her. Suddenly, she snapped. She turned, face red and eyes puffy, tears still trailed down her cheeks. She yelled at them to shut their mouths, they had no right to speculate. They did not know what they would lose or had no respect for those that were afraid of what may come - her dad was in the reserves and she knew he would be one of the first to be called up in the scramble into action. As far as I know, he returned safely, but that moment, that day, all there was, was fear and loss in her mind.

For myself, I sat and watched. I observed my friends, my peers, try to make sense of what happened. I may not have known what it meant, but I knew that I was watching history be made. At fourteen years old, I sat and mentally documented and tried to calculate the implications of what I witnessed. I felt no fear, no sense of loss, nothing. I knew things would change, but I couldn't say what would happen.

This commercial is one that I will never forget. When it aired, the simplicity of it struck me. I think I actually cried the first time I saw it. It is one that I go back to, in my head, when I think of how the world changed for me after that day.

For others, the change was more profound. Loved ones were in the towers or near enough to see it first hand. My cousin, who was going to school in New York at the time, slept through it all the way only a college kid with no morning classes can. There are survivor stories and "lucky to not be in the office" stories and other, not-so-happy stories from family all across the US.

It's been ten years since that day. Lives have changed in ways no one ever imagined. As the years passed and I grew up, family, friends of the family, friends of friends, and my own friends proudly enlisted and were deployed. Some never came home and of those that did, all that remained of the ones on the front-lines were broken shells and tattered souls.

September 11th will never be forgotten. America will always remember.

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