Sunday, September 11, 2011

On September 11, 2001, I had just turned 16

(You might want to get a snack. It's a long post.)

image via

I've been thinking a lot about 9/11 today. It seems most people have been, so it's a little irrelevant to mention that fact. Still. I've got a lot of thoughts swirling and I'm not sure how to articulate them, but I'm going to try. I'm so wary of cliches, but I'm not sure how to talk about September 11th without using a few. (I'm not that developed of a writer yet.) So if the cliches are present, please forgive me for them.

When we were very small, some of us had the school assignment of interviewing our parents about where they were when President Kennedy was shot, and their experience. A friend recently pointed out that our own children will probably have school assignments asking us the same question about 9/11. Jacob and I teach the 7-year-olds in Primary, and today I was going to ask them what they remembered about that day, before realizing with a jolt that all of it happened 3 years before they were born. I asked them if they knew what was special about today anyway, and most of their parents had told them. But it's something that they'll only ever hear about, and not remember. My sister talks about the "before" and "after" worlds of 9/11. But the children we teach in Sunday School have only ever experienced the "after." They were born into a world of heightened airport security, into a vocabulary that includes "terrorist" and "jihad" and "Taliban." Words that had never entered my own lexicon until my junior year in high school, early in the school year.

The truth is I don't remember many details from that day. My journal entries from that time promise thoughts about the attacks, but a (understandably) juvenile focus on boys and cast lists and self-identity crises replaced the promised descriptions. The entry from September 20th mentions the event, with unsatisfying brevity:

Well, it's been a while since I've written, so you deserve an update! I'm sure when I read this years hence, or when my posterity reads it, they may think of the date September 11, 2001 (or 9-11). Well, on that day, between 8-9 am, 2 United Airlines flights were high-jacked by terrorist groups and crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Another was flown into the Pentagon, and yet another, supposedly bound for the White House, crashed on-course in Pennsylvania. America has been attacked. (But not defeated.) A brief account for posterity and my own remembrance...BUT, not today (tonight, actually). It's an hour past bed-time and so, it will have to wait till tomorrow. 

My words sound so clinical to me now, even callous. But September 11th affected me deeply. When I was little, my parents worried about how sensitive I I grew older, I learned to cope a little bit better, but I was still known to weep at car accidents. I know I wrote a poem about 9/11, cliche and vague, but heartfelt. But I think I never wrote about September 11th because it hurt me. I kept waiting until I was ready to write about it.

It's been 10 years, and I think I'm ready now.

My sister Annalicia woke me up with news about something, but I had been dreaming (about a dinosaur, I remember) and dismissed her 12-year-old rantings and tried to sleep for a few more minutes. But when I came into the living room later, I know the television must have been on, because I remember that I found out what had happened right after I fully woke up. I remember feeling this sense of disconnect between what was happening on the other coast and the daily needs to get ready for school--brushing my teeth and packing my backpack felt insensitive somehow with the news showing what it was showing. Normally, there was this rush to get to the bus stop on time, but I remember that being sort of suspended.

On a normal school day, the available members of my family gathered in the living room to kneel for a prayer before leaving for school/work. We were all there that morning. I remember kneeling together and watching the news, waiting for a moment to mute the television and pray. It was a little before 8:00 am. And as we knelt and watched, the first tower collapsed. My most vivid memory of the entire day was of that moment. My stepmom began to cry the moment the tower began to fall, and said "Oh, Curt! All those people!" I remember that her tears scared me almost as much as what I was seeing.

I was astounded at the sight. I don't think I would have registered it as real if my stepmom hadn't said what she did. It was too surreal...too like the movies. I couldn't comprehend the fact that I was watching people die. It was too big of a thought for me. And even though it's 10 years later, my mind still hasn't grown quite enough to encompass something that big.

I don't remember that school day. I'm sure we must have been watching the news and talking about what was happening/had happened. I remember that over the next few days, teachers made sure we could talk if we needed to. I remember talking about it in Spanish class, and all of us trying to talk about something we couldn't quite grasp, in a language that wasn't our own. I remember my Spanish teacher saying, "Para mi, los imagenes mas inquietante son de las personas que salto de las ventanas." ("For me, the most disturbing images are of the people who jumped from the windows.") I don't remember anything about my family or friends talking about it. I wish I did. I like to think that I stood with my friends in that spot in the courtyard, in front of the choir room, Amanda and Brette and Kristen and Evan and I all crying together. I think we must have.

I could write my thoughts about what I now realize are the political effects of that day. Or about how phrases like "We will never forget" confuse me because I don't see how anyone COULD forget. Or about how I long for the day when people stop wanting revenge and start wanting all of humanity to be blessed. I could reminisce about visiting Ground Zero in 2005. But those things don't seem particularly important tonight. So I'll end with this memory. If there's any moment that captures how I felt during that time, it's this memory.

That year, the Fall Choir Concert became, in part, a 9/11 Tribute. I was in the main Concert Choir, with most of my closest friends. We sang an a cappella song called "The Prayer of the Children" as our tribute song. We all cried the first time we heard the recording of what we were going to sing. It was early October, and we were rehearsing for the show. The school year had just started, but things had sort of begun to settle. Danny Thompson hadn't dropped out yet, and Mrs. Tadema was the new salvation of the Drama Department. Amanda Kerth still had braces, and Kristen Wurtz had just gotten her license and an old orange VW bug, and Evan Way was the love of everyone's life.

That day, choir was almost over, and we were going through all the other songs in our repertoire. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, all the lights went out. After the expected screams and nudges, we sat and waited for the lights to come on, so Mrs. Brock could see her sheet music and accompany us. There was some dim light coming in from the windows in the double doors of the choir room. What happened next sounds like something from a movie, but it was one of those beautiful rare moments when life really does shine that brightly. I don't remember who it was, but someone said, "Hey. Let's sing 'Prayer of the Children.'" Mrs. Brock gave us our starting notes, and we began to sing. And slowly we began to stand up, one by one. I remember taking the hands of the people standing next to me. I remember very dimly seeing the tears on Mrs. Brock's face as she directed us, even though we couldn't see her very well. And I remember the whole thing suddenly hitting me...realizing that this moment was our tribute. Of realizing what it meant to sing those words. Realizing that 40 young voices singing the hurt and the healing and the terror and the hope of a September morning in 2001 was bigger than the tribute concert we were planning or the young poetry we were writing or the talks we were having in Spanish class. I remember the way it didn't matter that we could barely see each other for the darkness, and I remember the fullness of the silence right after we finished.

That's what I remember about September 11th.


mallosaurus said...

you are amazing. i am currently watching "9/11 As it Happened" on MSNBC, and it is horrific - and I am so embarrassed to remember that I was a 13-yr old worried about how i would look for picture day. It really was surreal, and I was so naive and young. Now watching the news footage that I couldn't watch as it happened since I was in school {although the TVs were on in each class} I just can't help but wish I understood the magnitude of what was happening when it did. But maybe it's good that I didn't, since I was hyper-sensitive like you. I'm so glad you wrote your thoughts of that day and your choir tribute afterwards. It is so moving, and your kids will just appreciate it so very much. I was moved to tears by your words. Thank you Liz :)

BeeBee said...

Just stumbled upon your blog. Nice digs! And great thoughts on lots of things! Enjoyed reading!

Laura said...

That's truly the only thing I can think to say..."wow".

Thank you for this.