It’s taken me a year to write this post.
I knew it was coming, of course. Last year was nineteen, so this year is twenty. Most years, I spend the eleventh day of September engaging with social media very tentatively. I mute a lot of terms. I don’t like the reminders.
Part of me hates that I’ve written this at all.
I was nine days shy of my sixteenth birthday, a junior in high school. I went to a magnet school, and that year we had transferred into a newly renovated building, so everything was so very shiny and new. I was still getting used to the layout and the fastest way to get from one class to another. I hated the “ergonomic” seats, which were oddly balanced and kept snagging my hair. That morning, I was in physics class, at a table near the door. We were doing something — I don’t remember what. It was still early in the year, but we were running some activity in small groups, maybe on velocity. The teacher wasn’t lecturing, I know that, because I was near enough the door to hear when another teacher came in and whispered to mine that a plane had crashed into the Twin Towers. ‘My gods,’ I thought, ‘what a terrible accident.’
If I’m remembering correctly, that class period ran from roughly 8:30 to 9:45. I may be off by five or ten minutes; it’s been a while. It’s been twenty years. I can’t line up exactly when we knew what early on, but by the time class ended, we were aware that it hadn’t been an accident, that there had been a second plane hitting the second tower. That happened at 9:02am. I think it had happened already by the time we heard about the first one, but information was filtering down to us in layers, you understand. Someone not teaching who had a radio or tv on heard something, and went to tell someone else, who went to tell someone else, and at that point, no one was telling the kids anything. We were overhearing hushed conversations and then whispering amongst ourselves.
Those whispers turned into a roar when the classes changed. The kids who’d been in study hall, and thus able to use computers during that hour, started spreading what they knew. And that, I think — and it seems so strange now, that certain moments of this day are embedded in my memory, and other things I can’t quite piece together — was when I heard that, at 9:37am, a plane had crashed into the Pentagon.
I sat down in my next class — 9:50am? Or thereabouts? — and began, very quietly, losing my shit.
My father, I knew, was on his way to the Pentagon that morning.
He worked in the Department of Public Safety in Virginia, and it was very normal for him to have meetings at the Pentagon. Not an every day or even every week occurrence, but nothing out of the ordinary. He was part of an anti-terrorism task force. He worked with the FBI and CIA and generals and Cabinet Secretaries. It was normal.
He had dropped me off at school, because I was still nine days away from being able to drive myself, and he was on his way to the Pentagon, and now a plane had hit the Pentagon.
Now, had I been in my right wits, I would have done the math. There was really no way he could’ve made it from downtown Richmond at 8:20am and been at the Pentagon by 9:37am. But it was nearly 10:00am by then, which was plausible if still unlikely, given I-95’s weekday traffic, and I don’t think I was sure then exactly when that strike had happened. We were all confused and frightened, and a fifteen year old’s brain is only but so well equipped to handle the onslaught of emotions and stress. So I was freaking out.
My creative writing teacher — the incredible Bear O’Bryan — walked into our room, always kept gloomy with low lights, wearing a stormy expression. He switched the radio on to NPR, said “Take notes,” and sat down. And that was it, for the next half hour or so. We mostly didn’t even talk. We listened, horror-struck, as the North Tower collapsed. (The South Tower had, I think, fallen during the change between classes). And then we heard that a flight had gone down in Pennsylvania.
I think that was when I really started losing my shit. Shaking and trying not to cry, because I was suddenly so afraid for my father. And Bear, wonderful, empathetic teacher that he was, noticed. He came up behind me and very quietly said, “Is there someone you need to call?” I nodded; I couldn’t even speak, because if I did, I was going to start sobbing. “Go.”
So I rushed to my locker — which seems so quaint now, when I think the battle to keep cell phones out of classrooms has been entirely lost. Back then, we weren’t even supposed to have them in school, but my parents insisted, and as long as I kept it switched off and in my locker all day, who would ever know? Well, I switched it on and dialed my father in a state of absolute panic, just daring someone to come find me in the hall and tell me I couldn’t have it. (Bear would have had my back; I knew that for certain).
My dad was fine. He’d been turned around halfway up 95 and was with the governor, back in Richmond. I think that was the first time in my life I knew what it was to be “sick with relief.” Everything that flooded through me then turned my stomach. Dad didn’t know when he’d be home — and my mother was in New Mexico for a conference, so I’d have to take care of my sister (then nine years old) tonight. Could I do that?
I guess? I had no idea. I was nine days from having a driver’s license. I promised him I would. There was really no choice. I’d have to try.
I don’t remember most of the rest of the day until I got home. I’m sure I spent lunch with my usual set of drama club friends. We must’ve been in the drama room; we always were, when we could be. I had Bear again, for AP Lit, after lunch. I can’t remember what my last class of the day was. Maybe Latin? Yes, I think it was Latin. After-school activities must have been cancelled, or else I would’ve had drama club. Or did I skip Fall Festival prep to go home to my sister? I can’t remember.
My sister was in the fifth grade. So I got to explain terrorism to a nine year old.
Mama had instructed me to stay online, because she and Dad would use email to be in touch. This was before smartphones, but they had Blackberries. The cell phone networks were jammed and unreliable, though. I hadn’t heard from Dad since calling him during 4th period. I made Cait do her homework and take a shower. I think we ordered pizza? Mama also told us not to watch tv, and while I obeyed her in that, I was getting a constant stream of information online.
I didn’t go to school the next day. Henrico must have cancelled, and since my nine year old sister couldn’t be left home alone, I stayed home, too. I remember being angry about that, because I wanted to hug my friends. It took Mama days to get home, because the airports were still shut down, so she and her colleagues drove back to New Mexico from Virginia. And Daddy was busy with the governor.
Over the next few weeks, I remember being torn between getting swept up in the patriotic fervor that seized the nation, and being terrified there was going to be a war.
Sweet summer child.
At some point that fall, my dad packed a cooler full of MREs and told me if something happened in Richmond — they were very worried about the Federal Bank being a target — I should take my sister and drive west. (He claims to have no memory of having done this, but it sure made an impression on me).
Trauma is ongoing. A lot of this story and how it touched my family for many years afterwards, and continues to, isn’t mine to tell. A lot of it is the stuff that touched my entire generation, all of us who were old enough to remember but not quite adults yet. And the fallout went on for years, is still happening. I remember opposing the Patriot Act, wearing black ribbons to school. I remember Colin Powell trying to sell the UN on falsehoods to justify a war. (The local news came to my AP Gov class to get our reactions; we were underwhelmed, unconvinced, unimpressed. I seem to recall they didn’t use a lot of our interviews in the actual broadcast, but relied just on the B-roll they took of us watching attentively). I remember the security theatre that mushroomed up, the trading of liberty for security that happened in increments, all of us boiling frogs.
Part of me hates that I’ve written this. Part of me hates dredging up the memory of adrenaline. A lot of me hates how it all gets flashed about every September, and I know it’ll be so much worse today, all over the media that I’ll be dedicatedly avoiding. So why did I? Why am I contributing to that public swell of tainted nostalgia?
I don’t know. I’m a writer who loves history. Marking important events and how they’re perceived later on is an instinct. It felt important to remember, even if I hate remembering, in more detail than I’ve allowed myself to do in a really long time, and to record that remembrance.
Many of my students weren’t born yet when this happened. None of my campers were. This day is something that has shaped their lives, but they’re a step or two removed from its reality. They have no memory of a day that is in some ways so vivid in my recollection, and in some ways a blur, or even a void. (Trauma is weird). I wonder what context they have, what connections they see. They didn’t experience firsthand how that day changed what “patriotism” meant in a fundamental way, how it became a poison and a weapon (not for the first time; certainly it long has been for some communities, but in a way that seems more all-consuming, more a total paradigm shift). They didn’t live through the steps that took us, inexorably but not inevitably, from 9-11 to 1-6.
I don’t know why I wrote this, and so I don’t know how to end it. I suppose with a reminder that dissent is patriotic, that the best thing you can do for a nation you care about is hold it to account, and that my optimistic heart still believes it’s possible to change course from the one that fear put us on twenty years ago.