Most stories from that day begin the same way.
It started out like any other day. The sky was the bluest blue you’ve ever seen, not a cloud in the sky.
But we all know the stories branch out in a million different directions from there– stories of devastation, hope, tragic loss, nightmare, and bravery. We tell our stories as a way of healing, of sharing, of connecting. Here is my story of that day. I’d love to hear yours if you are willing to share it, too.
It started out like any other day. The sky was the bluest blue you’ve ever seen, not a cloud in the sky. I was living in North Carolina, and had just settled into reading a story to my class of 25 second graders. I launched into my usual animated method of reading, using different voices and reeling the kids in with words woven by the author. I noticed my principal, dressed in her blue power suit, in the doorway. She stopped by every morning to collect the attendance and often stood there a moment or two to observe with a smile. This time, she walked into my room with purpose and then began to whisper the most unbelievable words in my ear.
“Two planes have hit the World Trade Center, one has hit the Pentagon, and the White House may be under attack.”
It was 9:45 AM on September 11, 2001.
I was one of the first teachers to be notified because the principal knew my friends, family, and boyfriend lived in the northeast– Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, and Philadelphia. She also knew my sister was in the Peace Corps, living in Turkmenistan. That’s a very far away place on a good day, on a day like this it might as well have been the moon. If the moon bordered the place where the terror most likely originated.
My heart stopped. I stared at my class. 25 pairs of innocent eyes stared back, waiting to hear what happened next in the story I was reading. She whispered a t.v. had been set up in the library. I handed the book to my student teacher, quietly told her what was happening, and asked if it would be okay if I checked on my family. She took over reading, not skipping a beat, bless her heart.
A box of tissues, a t.v., and a growing group of staff filled the tiny workroom in the library. We watched a tower fall. We watched as massive amounts of information– all of it terrifying– came at us. We saw the newscasters in complete shock and themselves often emotional. And now, somehow, I needed to pull it together and face my class as if nothing had happened.
We did not tell the children. It was best if the parents decided how they would explain it. All day long, parents came and picked up their kids. By the end of the day, only a handful of children remained– those whose families couldn’t get out of work or didn’t have transportation. Just before dismissal, one of my sweeties said, “Wow, so many people went home early today! Where did they go?” I’ll never forget the innocence in his voice, the same voice that returned the next morning trembling, and for months and months would run to me shivering every time a plane flew overhead during recess.
After school, I headed to my second job. I worked as a receptionist in an upscale hair salon. The owner was from Pakistan. All day long, he listened to everyone talk to him about the attacks without being able to see any coverage himself. As we walked out to our cars at night, we passed by a bar with huge screens showing the planes hitting the tower. I watched his face as he witnessed it, silently, for the first time. He didn’t say much that night, but the sadness was palpable. This was a whole new world for sure.
Perhaps the hardest part was the unknown. Were there more attacks planned? Did our friends get out of the towers in time? Who else is missing, were they targeting schools, who piloted those planes? A flurry of emails indicated most of my friends and family were safe and sound. Even though the flights departed from Logan, I didn’t know any of the passengers. Of those in the World Trade Center, all but one friend was accounted for– and there was still hope, right? My uncle worked in Bethesda and not the Pentagon. My sister was soon evacuated from her post in Turkmenistan, even though there was no real threat to her– except the unknown, so they made her leave. Despite the reassurances, it was impossible not to think those passengers were our friends. We felt those who perished were our own. We all mourned for them, for our country, for our loss of innocence and the old way of living that was now sure to change.
As the week came to an end, it became evident my friend in the World Trade Center would not be coming home. She was one of the happiest, kindest, sweetest people I’ve ever met. I often think of her family and her closest friends. To this day, I still can’t imagine their pain, and I can’t think of that day without remembering her beautiful, shining smile.
As a nation, we were left to pick up the pieces. Everyone felt so helpless. You could donate blood, but there were scarily few survivors who needed it. You couldn’t help clean up, it was too dangerous. We flew flags, had spaghetti dinner fundraisers, and pledged to never forget. As a teacher, I drew pictures with my students to help them work through their feelings. So many of them had watched the coverage. It was impossible to escape, and anxious parents needed to watch the news as much as their kids needed NOT to. Too late it was realized that exposure of that type meant lots of nightmares and anxiety for them as well.
Ten years have passed. I’m no longer living in North Carolina, I’ve married and had my own children. I’m sad for my friends, my country, and our children that have to grow up in a world that knows such terror. But, as most stories from that day will end, I have also seen the good in people. I’ve witnessed the best they have in them. From those that gave their lives, those that volunteered to help, those that gave a hug or shed a tear together. And those amazing New Yorkers– of all sizes and shapes and races and religions– who rose up and continued to go on with their daily lives and prove that they may have taken our innocence, but they can not take our spirit, our hope, our determination.
Sometimes I think of those that spead terror. I think of them training in dusty deserts, hiding in remote mountains (or small apartments here, watching their backs every second). We found out one of them lived in a mansion, but had an isolated life in constant fear. While they do that, we’ll still be dancing in our deserts, hiking our mountains, swimming in our oceans/lakes/streams, and reveling in the beautiful blue sky every time we see it. That’s what I’ve learned, ten years after that day that started like any other– a day that was flawlessly blue, not a cloud in the sky.