I remember homeroom, vaguely. It was the boy next to me’s birthday. He was a quiet boy, so he didn’t talk much, but he was one of the first people I met in high school. I liked trying to make him laugh in the fifteen minutes we had before the first bell. He would usually roll his eyes at me, but quietly chuckle at the same time. It was his birthday and his face turned bright red when the teacher said it and we all looked at him.
Art class, I remember. I remember weird details I probably shouldn’t. I remember the teacher. She had long, wavy hair. She was younger than most of our teachers. She was energetic and supportive and friendly. She always had smiles for us, always. But not this day. This day she barely noticed us as we wandered in and found or seats. This day she was too busy staring at a radio in the corner we never noticed before. It had never been on before, and she had certainly never been staring at it, listening, wringing her hands. When the bell rang, she turned down the radio and faced us. The eyes that were usually bright with laughter waiting to escape were wide and glassy with tears waiting instead.
Her face was more serious than I’d ever seen it. She told us that she had something to tell us, something terrible. She told us that a plane had crashed in New York. We all looked at her, quiet and still. We could tell this was important, but we didn’t understand.
Surely this isn’t that big of a deal – planes crash all the time, don’t they? She has always been a little eccentric, so I assume she’s being a little dramatic. Bad things happen every day, so I try to forget. She tells us to draw quietly in our sketchbooks and we do. We listen to the radio, but we don’t absorb the words. We stay silent as she had asked us to, because we can tell it’s important to her, but we don’t understand.
The next few classes, I try to forget. It’s always unsettling to see your elders so visibly shaken, so I focus on Biology, I focus on English.
I remember, at lunch, a girl I carpool with stops me on the way to my lunch table. “I’m coming home with you guys today. Track practice was cancelled because a plane crashed into a building in New York.” I look at her, confused. ” I heard about that in Art, but how does a plane crashing in New York affect your Track practice here in Massachusetts?” She shrugged, and we dropped it. I tried to think about what this could mean, but I couldn’t come up with a connection. I went on with my day, because I didn’t understand.
I remember that at some point before the day was over, the other girl I carpooled with texted me to tell me that her mom wanted us outside right at 2:15, when the last bell rang. This was annoying, because I liked to stay after school a little while to talk to my friends, but it was only the second week of the carpool, so I didn’t want to make anyone angry.
I remember that when we got out into the parking lot, my friend’s mom practically yelled at us to get in the car. It was as if we were running late, when really we were much earlier than usual. She was looking around the car as though she was afraid someone was going to be on our tails, chasing us. She seemed to relax a little once we were all in the car, but she still looked more tense than usual. She was your typical “cool mom”. Trendy haircut, tight-fitting [but never inappropriately so], fashionable clothing. Among the three moms in this carpool, she was the most likely to make us laugh all the way to/from school and to let us listen to whatever music we wanted to. Today was different. Today she had her brows furrowed and her famous smile was nowhere to be seen. Today we weren’t allowed to put our favorite CD in, we had to listen to the news. She told us it was serious, she was the first to say the word “attack” to us, she was the first to make us wonder if we were in danger. We mostly rode in silence, because we knew this wasn’t normal. We knew this was bigger than us, but we didn’t understand.
I remember being home in my kitchen, watching the news. I had heard all day about these planes that crashed, but now I was seeing it. “A plane crashed into a building” means nothing until you’ve seen images of a plane crashing into a building. I remember watching them play the footage of the plane hitting the World Trade Center and the building crashing to the ground in a billowing cloud of black smoke. The first time they played it, it was almost like a scene in a movie. It was tragically beautiful, but it was just a building. It wasn’t until they started talking about the “death toll” and the “rescuers” that it started to become real. People were dying. A lot of people. This wasn’t your everyday tragedy. What had been apparent to the adults since early that morning was slowly becoming apparent. This was bigger than anything that had happened in my lifetime. I could tell this much, but I didn’t understand.
I think my first real semblance of understanding came when I first heard the word “terrorist” and had it explained to me. As I slowly started to learn that this wasn’t just an accident, a freak of nature, happenstance. This was purposeful. This was an attack.
Finally, I started to understand.
I remember a brief period of time in which we hadn’t heard from my aunt’s husband, who spent his work week in New York. I remember the relief that was physically evident in my parents when we finally did.
I remember not understanding fully. I remember knowing it was all important, that it was all serious, but I remember understanding that I didn’t fully understand. I remember being sad for those who died – more sad than I’ve ever felt for people I had never met – and a little scared because they kept saying “Boston” over and over, since that’s where the flights had left from.
As the days and years went on, I understood more and more. The more I understood, the more it broke my heart. The more I understood, I understood less all the same. I didn’t understand how there was that much hatred in the world. I didn’t understand how anyone could want to end another person’s life, let alone a group of people wanting to end as many lives as possible, even if it meant sacrificing themselves. I couldn’t understand – and still can’t – wanting to risk your own life for anything other than saving someone else’s.
I remember understanding, while still not really understanding. I remember understanding that I didn’t fully understand. I remember grown ups having serious faces for a long time.