15 Years Later: A Reflection

I read something the other day that left me dumbfounded.

“This year marks the first year high school freshman will learn about 9/11 as a historical event that happened before they were born.”

When I read that, it finally hit me that we were, in fact, approaching the 15th year anniversary of the September 11th attacks. That anniversary was yesterday and like every year since there was a heaviness in the air – and rightfully so.

On September 11th, 2001 I was six-years-old.

Most people my age know what they know about 9/11 from the countless books, films, and documentaries that have been made chronicling the attacks. Very few have actual recollections about the day.

My memories of that day aren’t as vivid as someone like, let’s say, my mother, but they’re still there.

I remember it being a beautiful, crisp morning. I remember this because on days like that, my mother would make the extra effort of walking me to school even though she had a decent commute to get to her job in the city and probably shouldn’t have. We lived in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn and it was just a normal Tuesday morning.

I remember being dropped off at school. I remember hanging up my Hello Kitty backpack in the back of my classroom. And I remember how quickly the day got . . . weird.

All of the teachers gathered out in the hallway for what seemed like forever. Then we heard people crying. Then my teacher closed the windows because they started getting dusty and people were coughing. Then kids in my class started getting picked up by their parents. Then I started freaking out.

I started freaking out because my teacher said that school was ending early and our parents were on their way to pick us up. Right then, I felt completely and utterly alone. I knew I had no one to come pick me up because my parents both worked in the city at the time, so I thought I was going to be there all day and night, by myself. When my neighbor’s dad came to pick her up, I cried as I gripped his leg and begged him to take me home to my Abuela. I now know the school legally couldn’t have let him take me home but, man, did I angry cry when they left. Finally, my mother’s best friend came to pick me up and I arrived home safe and sound.

I remember running up to my Abuela, scared but not really knowing why. I remember walking in and catching a glimpse of the TV. I remember thinking it odd that my grandmother was watching an “action” movie (hint: it wasn’t an action movie.) I remember sitting with her until my older sister came home early too. Then my aunt came home. Then my parents. I can still see my mom running into our apartment. She already had mascara running down her face as she grabbed ahold of my sister and I and began sobbing.

But most of all, I remember sitting in our kitchen, as a family, and watching the news coverage.

My sister’s room was right next to the kitchen and she had a small TV on a swivel mount that could be directed towards her bed or out towards the kitchen table. I remember seeing the footage so vividly. I remember seeing the implosions of those buildings. I recognized those buildings.

You see, my family traveled to Greentown, Pennsylvania a lot when I was little. To get there, at some point, we’d get onto the West-Side Highway to get to the Holland Tunnel where we would eventually pass the World Trade Center.

Whenever we’d pass the Trade Center, I’d try to look up at the Twin Towers with the window rolled up (not down) to see if I could see the tops and I never could. They looked like they went up for miles and miles. I was convinced they went all the way to heaven. And now, they were gone. Did I understand the gravity of the situation? Of course not. All that I knew was that my favorite buildings to look up at were gone and everyone around me was sad about it too.   

So why am I writing this? Why am I sharing my six-year-old memories with all of you?

I’m sharing them with you because conversation about that day, whether it’s from the eyes of someone who escaped one of those buildings or the eyes of a then six-year-old, is important. It’s important that we reflect on our nation’s history, in good times and bad. It’s also important because as I think about today’s high school freshman just learning about the magnitude of that day, it’s important that they understand the repercussions that day had on the world.   

Last semester in my Modern American Fiction class, we were having a discussion about The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The book centers around a father and son and the journey they take as they try to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Being a relatively shy and introverted person, I hadn’t said much that whole semester. It was one of our final classes and my professor decided to ask me what I thought about the book.

She looked at me and asked me two questions: what was my favorite moment in the book and which character did I relate to the most.

Anyone who has read The Road will remember a particularly heart-warming moment when, in an attempt to bridge some sort of connection from his pre-apocalyptic world to his son’s (and now his) deformed world, the father finds one last can of Coca-Cola in a vending machine and is determined that his son drink it so he could learn something about the world as his father once knew it. His son is confused and bewildered by the drink, unsure of what to think of it and how to picture a world where drinking this fizzy, caramel-colored liquid is the norm.

I continued off of this scene and told my professor that the character I related to the most was the son, particularly because of this scene. Now while I do enjoy a cold Coca-Cola every now and again, that wasn’t what I related to. I began to explain to her that I related to feeling a confusion for the world my parents knew and the knowledge that there were irreparable differences between our generations. And the main example I gave centered around 9/11 and the effects it subsequently had.

I explained that I didn’t know what it felt like to live a life pre-9/11.

Sure, I have vague memories of running around my backyard when I was five and birthdays and holidays pre-9/11, but I don’t remember the world before 9/11. I’ve never known what it was like to travel pre-9/11 security measures. I’ve never known a time when there wasn’t conflict in the middle east and we weren’t waging some sort of war. Most importantly, I’ve never known a time when September 11th was just another date on the calendar. And now neither will today’s freshman nor those who follow.

Being a resident of both New York and New Jersey, I’ve met multiple people who were personally affected by that tragic day. And while I can say I’m lucky enough to have not lost someone that day, I still feel the loss.

I feel the loss of the thousands of people who lost their lives just trying to go about their day. I feel the loss of a world where the possibility of a terrorist attack at any minute wasn’t on the mind of millions. I feel the loss of an innocence that I’ll never know.

But while I do feel this loss, I can say that I also feel a reverence for the city of my birth and the nation that raised me. I’ve seen this nation come together and help their fellow man in dire times of need. I’ve seen a city, deep in the depths of disillusionment, bounce back stronger than ever. I’ve now traveled through the World Trade Center countless times and have been astonished at the progress I see every time I go.

It is important that we never forget what happened on September 11th, 2001. But it is also important to remember that we’ve not only survived, we’ve thrived. And now I can once again travel into lower Manhattan, to an area no longer referred to as “Ground Zero,” and gaze up at my new favorite building, One World Trade Center, in all 1776 feet of its glory. Although it's a different building, I still can't see the top. But it's there and if anyone ever needed a sign of the resilience of man, this is it.       

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