Today, I honked for freedom driving down the interstate to work.
Before my junior year of high school, I always felt like I was supposed to take September 11th really seriously. I spent recess that day pressed against the red brick walls of my school building, fearful of bombs being dropped on my head not too far from Manhattan.
I was forced to grow up after 9/11. We, the 5th graders, oldest kids in the elementary school, were the only ones notified of what actually happened because we were the oldest. Our teacher, who had only been our teacher for a few days at the time, explained that we were old enough to know the truth upfront. It was bizarre, going through our days being the only ones in the school besides the actual adults who knew what was happening. We had such limited information. We were so scared for our parents, many of whom worked in the city. It was difficult watching the younger kids play at recess while we hid in the shadow of our school, unable to bring ourselves to tell them why we were “playing” a game of “don’t get hit by a bomb”. Many students were called home early. Looking back, these were probably kids whose parents worked close to Ground Zero.
Of the students who were called home early, I remember one particularly family. There was a big extended family of kids, cousins of cousins of cousins was how they were related, besides sharing a last name. I remember this family very clearly because they were dismissed from class one by one, and these dismissals were done over the entire school’s intercom system. For about 2 hours, they were all dismissed. We all giggled about it, saying that they should just tell the whole family to go home at once.
It occurred to me a few years later that this was one of the Arab families that attended my school, and that maybe parents working near Ground Zero was not the only reason they were called out of school early.
I remember doing a candlelight walk through the neighborhood. I wasn’t really sure of why I did it. I brought my brother out with me and we walked through most of my isolated neighborhood, leaving a trail of candlewax drippings as we walked. Some grownups would say to us, “You’re doing a great thing.” I didn’t think so. To be honest, I mostly had fun playing with the candles and letting out my inner pyromaniac. Although I conducted my walk with solemnity, I didn’t truly understand what had happened. One of my friends went through the neighborhood on his bike with an American flag hanging off the back, blowing in the wind as he rode around. I didn’t understand what he was doing.
It occurred to me a few years later that maybe he understood the power of the imagery of his Middle Eastern face riding with an American flag in his wake, and that maybe he understood what may have otherwise been thought of him if he didn’t put this image in his neighbors’ minds.
We tuned into the news and I watched for the first time in my life. We listened for every single name that was read off, the people who were missing, the people who were already reported as having passed away. It was one of the few moments I was able to sit still and focus my attention on one thing. Fortunately, I knew none of the names on the list.
I think that for several years afterwards, I remembered this day the same way I conducted my candlelight walk. I understood that there was a great weight to carry, of the lives that were lost, of the drastic changes that took place in this country. But I don’t think I really felt personally affected. I could have been. In reality, however, on September 12th, I was one of the least affected people in my region. I solemnly commemorated every year out of a sense that I was supposed to be really invested in what happened. But I don’t think I was.
That’s what I thought. But my junior year of high school, something changed. It was my AP world history class, and during the end of the course after our AP exams were over, we watched some documentaries about modern history, ending with the September 11 attacks. I put on the solemn face that I usually wore when commemorating 9/11 and watched with my classmates.
I’m not sure what triggered it, but I soon realized that I was crying.
Not crying. Sobbing. I was silently sobbing in my seat at the front of the classroom, but I was becoming less and less silent. I didn’t even realize this until my teacher came up to me and asked me if I was okay. Slightly confused, I tried to ask her, “What do you mean?” when I realized I couldn’t because I was taking little gasps of air in between sobs.
Oh. That’s what she meant.
She let me leave the classroom so I could sit out in the hall to calm down. I sat in the hallway, continuing to choke on sobs.
I was so scared.
I admit that I’m the type who might cry in class over something like this to draw attention to just how affected I was by this.
So the fact that I had no control over this scared me. I have anxiety about situations where I have no control, and my difficulty in breathing had become one of those situations. I started crying more consciously because I was scared of my reaction to this documentary, this footage that I had seen before, the news reports I had heard before.
I guess I was more deeply affected than I thought.
So today, 12 years later, I remember. I think I’ve seen much less remembrance than I usually see on this date. People referring to “Patriot Day” still seems strange to me. Do they know what Patriot Day is?
Do people know what changed on September 11th?