I’m not usually one for public self-reflection, particularly on September 11th, where I fear the risk of over-sentimentalizing. But this morning, on the ninth anniversary, I found a poignant reflection in an unlikely place. From the Twitter of notorious over-sharer and occasional racist, John Mayer:
johncmayer: Why is it that the 9th anniversary of 9/11 feels more like the first? There was healing and then the stitches popped. #iloveNY
File this under #wordsIneverthoughtI’dwrite, but I think John’s got a point. In light of the proposed Quran burning and Ground Zero Mosque, it is apparent that almost a decade later we’ve still got a long way to go in the grieving, remembrance, and understanding processes. I don’t believe that there is, or can be, any tidy collective experience for 9/11 (who is the “we”?), but I do believe in a common currency, particularly among members of my generation who delineate the pre- and post-9/11 world.
So, at the risk of over-sentimentalizing and over-sharing (publicly!), I’m posting a piece I originally wrote in 2006 and recently revisited. It is my best attempt at reflecting on what September 11 was and is, somewhere between a personal and collective lived experience.
I was laughing when the north tower of the World Trade Center was hit. Eighteen minutes later, at 9:03, a second plane collided with its twin, and the boredom of having spent 22 minutes in Mrs. Lamato’s second period algebra had set in. I left the room no more aware than I was when I had entered it, although newly disappointed with a test grade. In performing arts, we were fist-fighting, and while we shrieked and were taught to pull hair convincingly, a plane plowed into the Pentagon. We found it odd that our teacher ended the lesson early, making us sit quietly in rows. Over the intercom the principal announced that “we had been attacked”; it took a few seconds for me to determine who “we” was. Shushing the gossipers, I sat with legs crossed, trying to hear what wasn’t being said. Flight numbers and times and locations were repeated slowly, as if what we were being told would be more comprehensible if uttered sluggishly, but our brains were already too saturated with breakups and invites and homework. We were naive and still our September 11 was just another sunny Tuesday.
While I sat in the health room fourth period, the north and south towers collapsed from the top down, looking as though they had been peeled apart like an orange. My teacher, having been given the okay to acknowledge the situation, logged online to print photographs of the wreckage, briefing us intermittently.
Rumors began for lack of any real knowledge, and over my usual turkey sandwich and lemonade, I was told by several classmates that planes were circling our state and that the White House was under attack. My class size shriveled period by period as the names of my peers were called to the office where red-eyed mothers sat restlessly, waiting to escort their children safely home. I was bewildered and scared- not of another attack, but of not knowing what was going on. We forced diversionary discussions and attempted small talk through the remainder of the periods uncomfortably. Somebody complimented me on my shirt.
At home, my mom and I sat in front of the TV, our cheeks sticking together, slick and salty. My sister called, then Dad, Grandmom, Nanny, the aunts. Physically, we were all alright and accounted for, although every call consisted of “I just can’t believe it” and a brackish, wet receiver. Later in the evening, I was confronted with a new unfounded fear. As it grew dark, I began to feel increasingly unsafe; unsettled in the same way I had in August, when two convicts had escaped from the nearby prison. Presumably, the escapees were hidden in my backyard, waiting for me just as I had pictured Bob Ewell attacking Scout in her ham costume. I had felt then that I was in danger, somehow vulnerable, and on September 11th, I felt similarly, that the felon pilots were evading police in a New Jersey suburb.
It was after 9/11 that I began to feel like an outsider. While most of the nation needed to be given someone to blame, I had trouble being angry. I did not—and still do not—possess the capacity to become enraged with the terrorists, no matter how many PBS documentaries I see or press conferences are held. In the months and years that followed the eleventh, nationalistic fervor erupted among many- something that both frightened and worried me. Just as I was saddened by the events of September 11, I was equally disheartened with, and perhaps envied, the reactions of my family members and peers who found it easy to hate. While I felt guilty and jealous and confused, I was mostly just sad.
My September 11 made me wish to stay protected, although in many respects I felt as though shelter did not exist. The day itself differed only slightly from any other in my eighth-grade year, but gradually I’ve realized that I shouldn’t have expected it to. In some ways I still have trouble fathoming it at all. What’s most difficult to comprehend, what most are still tussling with, is how anyone could have a motive for killing 2,993 people. But yet I still cannot hate those who did.
I don’t remember the twelfth of September, perhaps because it blurred with the following weeks of attempted normalcy and habitual behavior. Most likely, my teachers and classmates and I pretended that we were alright, or that we understood, or that things were normal- and they were. We realized that normalcy is arbitrary and slowly, sheepishly, continued with our turkey sandwiches and weariness of algebra, hesitant only because we feared seeming callous. We settled for a new norm, and we were naive, and still our September 11th was just another Tuesday.