The sun shone strongly through the windows of my classroom on a typical Tuesday, distributing unwelcome late-summer heat over my students. It was just the second week of school, but it felt like a continuation of the year prior in some ways as I had moved up along with my students after our first year together at Kenmore Middle School.
Within a matter of seven hours, we would be bonded in trauma, as the school day ended in eerie silence. No planes passed overhead, hardly a car on the road, and most people shuttered in their homes, glued to their televisions and computers.
Ask any American about September 11th, and the overwhelming majority can tell you exactly where they were, how they heard the news, maybe even what they were wearing, and to what extent their life and the lives of their loved ones were affected.
I am no exception to this. I was leaving the library wearing one of my more professional outfits of a blouse and slacks along with a pair of platform sandals which my students always referred to as my Frankenstein shoes. As I passed the checkout desk, Mrs. Stump, our head media specialist, turned from the television strapped to the library cart and calmly stated, “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”
“Was it an accident?” I asked.
“That was the second one,” she said quietly, yet insistently.
I was incapable of appreciating just how devastating this really was. I did not consider the sheer magnitude of casualties and certain death. The World Trade Center towers were up 100 or so stories. Planes were big. This was not something small or recoverable. But I was young and distracted, and so I merely nodded and continued out of the library, shifting focus toward my third period class.
That didn’t last long.
The timeline here is hazy in my recollection, but at some point that hour, a third plane crashed into the Pentagon, less than five miles from us. Later, some would recall hearing rumbles caused by the low-flying aircraft as it approached its target. Loudspeaker announcements were made. Every television turned on. Parents began arriving at school to scoop up their children, while other students sat in panic because their mothers or fathers worked at the Pentagon or the airlines.
I was 25-years-old and responsible for keeping an agitated herd of seventh graders calm, all the while wondering if my own friends and family members were safe. Cell phone calls weren’t going through, thanks to a lack of necessary cell towers to handle such a catastrophe. I watched my colleagues valiantly stuff their own emotions way down as we all distracted ourselves with helping our students. I saw more than a few pre-teens holding on for emotional dear life, understandably terrified. One particular teacher heroically organized the dismissal procedure, not knowing if her husband who worked at the Pentagon was alive or dead.
After the last student had been claimed, the teachers and staff followed closely behind, anxious to get home to our own people. By that time, no planes were left in the air. No more would be weaponized, at least on that day. It was a small comfort.
There was no school the next day. I’m pretty sure the entire world, save the first responders digging through the rubble and searching for signs of life at both the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, had hit a giant pause button, desperately searching for rewind and praying to erase the previous 24 hours.
As school resumed, the world knew that the attacks had been orchestrated by Al Qaeda and carried out by several of its members. And soon we would learn that the attackers lived in an apartment complex a few doors up from our school and attended the same mosque as several of our students. Many students were recent arrivals to the United States and worried about the status of their visas. Would they be forced to leave? Would their asylum status be revoked? Not being born in a country that supports religious freedom, many expressed concern that their house of worship would be closed or that they would no longer be permitted to practice their faith. Even those families in our community who were from parts of the world other than the Middle East were concerned about their ability to stay in the U.S.
Our school grew closer that year as we mourned together. While some students did lose family friends, all parents and other family were safe. We grieved the losses of our community, the loss of security, and we learned from each other: teachers, staff, students. Adults and children. Citizens, veterans, undocumented immigrants, Muslims, Christians, Jews.
Two months later during Ramadan, a group of Muslim students spent their lunch hour in my classroom fasting and praying. Not once did their classmates criticize them or mock them for their beliefs. No one told them to go back to their country. These middle schoolers modeled the ideal response to tragedy and did not allow fear to dictate their treatment of their friends. We were a microcosm of the outside world, and while not perfect, we were a model worth emulating.
That was 16 years ago. My then-students are now older than I was on 9/11. They are teachers, doctors, lawyers, mothers, fathers. I keep up with them on social media, impressed by the men and women they’ve become while realizing how quickly time passes. Just one year after we watched planes fly into buildings together, we spent a month ducking and weaving our way into the school building, afraid of being shot by the DC Snipers. When they graduated high school, some chose to attend Virginia Tech, in spite of the fact that, months prior, a student had shot and killed dozens of people. To say they are survivors is an understatement.
Since 9/11, the world has changed irrevocably. Although still the most destructive act of terror, many others have occurred both abroad and in the United States. Wars have resulted. Post-traumatic stress disorder runs rampant in our soldiers returning from the Middle East. An entire generation is now entering high school having never known the excitement of meeting a loved one at the arrivals gate of an airport or even attending schools with unlocked doors. By age five, our children know how to hide from a gunman. We sit in our churches, our mosques, our temples, and our meeting houses, wondering what the best course of action would be if someone bursts through the doors shooting at us. We go to the movie theater with escape plans.
We have been holding our collective breath for 16 years, and the lack of oxygen is causing significant damage. No longer united through our grief, we are lashing out at one another in fear. So few seem interested in finding common ground.
And now, a presidential candidate is cheered for suggesting the answer to all of our woes is a giant wall and mass deportation. I think of my students on that day 16 years ago, their terrified faces indistinguishable from the terrified faces of their citizen classmates. I think of all they endured and what they’ve accomplished; the ways in which they’ve made this country their home, and how America is better for their presence and contributions.
Yes, much has happened in these 16 years to cause these fears and doubts. But in order to return to the unity we felt following the unthinkable, we must cast them aside. As the sixteenth anniversary of that day arrives, I vow to do my part. I will try to understand “the other” instead of disregarding him. I will listen instead of react. I will breathe deeply, and I hope you will, too.