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Looking Back at 9/11

September 4, 2011

ground zero

It is September, and in New Jersey another school year has just begun. There is now a new ritual for the returning students, an unfortunate one, for the anniversary of 9/11 awaits them shortly after they arrive. A new generation, most of whom had not even been born yet, will be asked to reflect on this abhorrent attack.

In the first several years following that terrible event, my students wrote about their memories of that day. They recalled the way they found out, how they and those around them reacted, and what they in their young minds thought had happened. In subsequent years when students were too young to remember themselves, they interviewed members of their family — some of whom worked right in the area and witnessed it firsthand — about their reactions and memories. This composition, far more than just an ordinary assignment, was a chance to reexamine feelings, analyze reactions, and reassess their understanding of this surreal and tragic occurrence. What they wrote was poignant, revealing, and sometimes startling, but always important, both to them and to me.

My own recollections remain abundantly clear, and I doubt they will ever fade.

The school at which I taught sat on a ridge on the other side of the Hudson River within sight of the New York skyline. That glorious September day seemed so full of promise as the unfolding of a new school year always did. The beauty of that morning with its clear blue sky belied what was about to occur.

My new class and I were getting to know each other and easing into the study of eighth grade English. During an early class, there was a call over the intercom for a student to come to the office accompanied by the hushed “oooo’s” of the other students, assuming some sort of transgression had been committed. Not such an unusual circumstance other than it was awfully early in the school year for such a thing to happen. A moment later there was another call, and then another. This was indeed unusual. No explanation was offered. As this process continued, the remaining students began looking questioningly at each other, sensing something was amiss, but what?

Shortly thereafter, the principal knocked at my door. She had an uncharacteristic troubled look on her face. When I opened the door, she motioned me into the hallway.

“An airplane has hit one of the Twin Towers. We’re calling down those students whose parents work there.”

She quickly left to deliver this information to the next room, and I returned to my class. The image I had was that of an accident, perhaps a small private plane from one of the nearby airports. Not having solid information and not wanting to bring about undue speculation, I did not relay this to the students still in my class. The remainder of the morning was subdued and uneasy.

Lunch period began at 11:20, and as I dismissed my class and was about to head downstairs, one of my colleagues rushing by whispered, “Go watch the news on the library TV. You’re not gonna believe this.”

She was right. As I walked in, the collapse of the towers was being rebroadcast. We all stared at the screen in stunned silence.

Many rumors had been circulating in the school yard at lunchtime, and some students who had gone home came back with various versions of what they had seen on TV. I tried to answer questions as honestly as possible but also with a vagueness generated by my own lack of knowledge. More and more students left, now being picked up by parents who wanted them home. The afternoon classes were a confused blur.

After dismissal, I stopped on the way home at Riverside Park a mile down the road from school. The park was empty save for an elderly dog walker or two. There was something very different about it, and I suddenly realized as I circled the park that the sky was empty. Normally there would be several planes a minute either coming or going to or from Newark International or JFK or Teterboro, their contrails crisscrossing the airspace over Lyndhurst. But now there were none, leaving a perceptible void. As I continued homeward on Route 21 along the Passaic River, a long dark plume of smoke paralleled my journey northward.

Once arriving home, all the incoming news was bad. New York was under lockdown. Hospitals were clearing the decks for the expected torrent of injured. I knew that my wife, a nurse at a major New York hospital, would not be coming home this night. Communication to her was impossible, so I sat alone, glued to the news broadcasts along with most of America.

Late that night she did manage to get a call through to me. I still remember the quiet somberness of her voice in her simple but telling statement: “Nobody came.”

In the aftermath, I heard of all the personal stories of the parents of our students, how one father helped carry a disabled coworker in a wheelchair down fifty flights of stairs, how several of them would have been there but for one twist of fate or another that made them late or kept them home that day. Not one of them perished. All, however, knew some of those who did.

This was one of those events, like the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the assassination of JFK, that time does not erase from our collective or individual memories. Those who were old enough to be aware, especially living in this area, will always be able to tell you where they were and what they were doing when they found out. Certain specific details particular to each person are left like an imprint on our brains, the expression on a face, the tone of a voice.

I still have some copies of those students’ compositions. They are reminders of how those young minds tried to understand something beyond comprehension. I hope they too kept theirs. As time passes, they will be able to see again through their youthful eyes their perspective of that time, and these stories can be told and retold to future children and grandchildren, preserving what is now their own piece of living history of that shocking, unforgettable day.

9/11 memorials

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