Remember September: A Teacher’s Reflection of 9/11
By Clayton Atkins – Bishop Verot Teacher
I wrote this piece last year, the day before the 15th anniversary of 9/11. I wrote it because I was curious about how people conceive of historically important events that they do not remember personally.
I teach high school English. When my students come into my room, they are expected to spend the first 5 minutes of class writing in their journals. Usually, I allow them to write about whatever they want, as long as words come out on paper. Sometimes, when I want to get a good read on how my classes think about a topic, I ask them to respond to a prompt that I have written.DOWNLOAD THE BULLETIN
I decided that I wanted to know how a bunch of kids (who were only 1-3 years old in 2001) fit this momentous historical event into their conception of the world. When I started thinking about that day, I realized that I currently teach my classes in the very same room of Bishop Verot Catholic High School that I was in on 09/11/2001, when I found out about the World Trade Center attack. For some reason, this fact was lost on me, even though I’ve taught classes in this room for the last two years of my life. I was attempting to get my students thinking beyond their narrow world of experience. I wanted them to see that their teachers are people too, who were once in high school, dealing with whatever adolescent things we had to deal with. I wanted them to see this event, which to them is nothing more than a section in their history books, or a documentary that airs once every year around this time, as a real thing that happened to people. I wanted to see how people who have no memory of a historic tragedy, conceive of such a thing.
Here’s what I wrote:
Yesterday was the fifteenth anniversary of the September Eleventh terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and United Airlines Flight 93. Most of you were very young when this occurred.
Me? I just so happened to be seated in this very room. I was a freshman in a World History Honors class.
Looking back on that day now, my memory fails me: I can only summon short flashes of scenes; brief moments in time are all that come to mind. I remember sitting in a desk just like the one you’re sitting in now, in a row just like the one you’re in, staring at the back of some kid’s head, mindlessly doodling in my notebook. Having already completed my response to our current event of the day, I was just about to close my notebook, reach into my backpack, and heave out my World History textbook (we had thick, massive textbooks, which we couldn’t possibly carry around all day, so in that impossibly short four minutes in between classes, we had to use the bathroom, decode a lock, switch out our gigantic tomes, lock everything back up, and scurry through the door of our next class before the bell…so I guess I was exhausted from all of that) when the loudspeaker dinged. This was a normal occurrence. We were at Verot: the loudspeaker dinged just about every day with some special announcement, or some special update about some special schedule or event.
But this ding was different. Normally, the loudspeaker ding was followed by a reasonable second of silence before whatever was to be spoken was actually spoken; but this ding—this ding went off like a gunshot, not because it was particularly loud, but because of the deafening silence that followed it. High above all the normal noise of the classroom—AC churning, fluorescent tubes humming, pens tapping—I could hear the death of authority: whoever decided to ding that loudspeaker, hadn’t decided what he was going to say once he did. I could tell that it was a man. The breathing was that of a man, but it was the breathing of a man at a loss for words. Usually, that ding signified an authoritative decree: “Students, Faculty, and Staff, tomorrow’s lunch period will be shortened by ten minutes to allow for adoration in the chapel”; “Student’s, tomorrow’s dress code will be strictly enforced”; “Good morning Verot, let us join in saying the Direction of Intention.” This ding, however, lingered in the air, attempting to drown out the tortured breathing of whoever was at the microphone.
I don’t know. Maybe the silence only lasted for a second longer than it usually did. What’s important is that, to me, right now, I remember it lasting an eternity. When the silence finally gave way to speech, everyone in the room must have been struck by the gravity in the speaker’s tone: no one spoke; again, there was a silence so severe, that it seeped into my skin and crept into my bones—I knew that this was no normal “special announcement.” I don’t remember how it was phrased, but I do remember snatches of speech, like “…planes have crashed into the World Trade Center…,” “…unsure of casualties…”, and “…pray for the people of New York…”. I don’t remember the loudspeaker voice instructing anyone to do so, but our teacher turned the classroom TV to the news. I remember watching the news coverage and not really grasping what was going on. I remember not grasping what was going on for the rest of the day. I remember everyone on campus filing into the newly constructed Anderson Theater and holding a prayer service. I remember meandering past the library on my way to my locker after lunch, seeing more news coverage on the TVs inside, and my best friend declaring: “Look at that! It’s so fake! Who could believe this?” And, for an instant, it did seem fake. I was born into an America that hadn’t been seriously attacked by a foreign power since Pearl Harbor. How could this happen?
But even in the throes of one of the most significant events in world history; even while I witnessed adults whom I respected—teachers, administrators, parents—break down and cry, unable to come up with any answers, anything that would comfort a young freshman—in the end, I didn’t care. I was so absorbed in my own life, that this momentous event, which would fundamentally alter the course of history, had almost no immediate impact on my daily life.
I remember my mother picking me up from school like any normal day. She must have been upset, but I simply requested that she take me to the comic book store on the way home; there was a new edition of Spiderman that I was anxious to read. Looking back, I suppose that she just appeased my desires, thinking that I’d already been through enough that day and deserved some distraction. But nothing could be further from the truth: I was young, naïve, and hell-bent on living my privileged American life.
It wasn’t until later that evening that things fell into focus. I remember waiting for dinner to be ready, sprawled out on the couch, finishing my Spiderman comic. It wasn’t until I had read the last frame of the issue that I fully realized that the news was on the television. I closed the comic, placed it on the end table, and turned my attention to the screen: footage of the towers being hit, burning, and imploding into a pillar of fire, dust, and ash replayed over and over again. It began to hypnotize me. My thoughts began to shift outside of my narrow realm of existence. I started to think about my relatives in New Jersey, some of whom commuted to New York daily; some of whom probably knew people who worked in the towers. I started to think of the actual people in those towers, and I started to feel guilty for my selfishness.
Then my attention shifted to my immediate surroundings: my mother at the stove, putting the finishing touches on our daily family meal; my father pacing between his office and his bedroom, doing whatever fathers do to earn a living, even in the midst of a national tragedy; but most of all, my eyes were drawn to my brother, nine years younger than I: he was building something. Although his eyes rarely left the television screen, he was meticulously placing one block atop another, constructing two twin towers out of toys. When his towers began to rise above his own meager height, he found a toy airplane, which was given to me by my grandfather when I was young. He held it delicately between his tiny fingers, made a noise like a little boys do when they try to sound like an engine—VROOM VROOM!—and careened that little piece of metal into his tower of wooden blocks, which shattered with an intensity and meaning far surpassing the real thing: the actual destruction of the actual towers did not affect me, but this child’s-play rendition of reality instantly shook me from my reverie: I knew then, as plaything smashed into plaything, that the world would never be the same. For some reason, this innocent child had to register this momentous event before I could.
When historic anniversaries inevitably come along, it’s important that we take a moment to reflect, not only on the moments themselves, but also on how we experienced them, how they felt to us at the time. This exercise has a revelatory potential. It can tell us about ourselves: who we were, who we are, and who we want to become. It also reinforces a point that is often lost on many of us: that some of the most important or memorable moments of our lives are nothing more than stories to successive generations. It is our job to relate these moments to them, emphasizing their historic magnitude, their humanity, and most importantly, how they made a deep impression on our lives.