I was driving to work on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, talking on my cell phone with my mother. Suddenly, she interrupted our conversation to say that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center buildings. My first thought was probably like the thoughts of many others who heard the news second-hand: it must have been a small plane, a Cessna maybe, an inexperienced pilot or some mechanical error. Surely an accident. A few minutes later, my mother exclaimed, “Oh my God, another plane hit the other tower!” Then she hung up.
It wasn’t until I got to work and huddled around a TV with my colleagues that I fully understood what had happened. In a hushed room with several others, I watched in horror, my mouth agape, as the Towers crumbled, as people ran through the streets of Manhattan, thick smoke filling the streets behind them. It looked like a scene you’d see from somewhere else, somewhere across the world. But not here.
Those of us with young children at home struggled with what to tell them, what to let them see and hear. What do you say to a child who has hardly seen or experienced much of the world outside his home, his community, his state, that allows him to understand the magnitude of 9/11? What do you say to let him know the larger world can be unpredictable and scary and dangerous, but so that you don’t scare him into never experiencing that larger world?
In the days after the attack, when the skies were so very still and quiet and the national mood somber, the school my eldest son attended requested that students come wearing red, white, or blue. They lined up the children, a couple hundred third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders, on the spacious lawn next to the school, lined them up in so that their bodies spelled “WE [heart] USA,” and then they took a picture. I have a laminated copy, long and narrow, like a bookmark. I can easily pick out my son, clad in a red t-shirt, forming the bottom of the “E” in “WE.”
I look at that picture now and think about those children gathered on the grass, sporting red, white, or blue, understanding but not quite understanding. Old enough to know that something big and terrible has happened, but perhaps not quite understanding how big, how terrible, how it would change the world. I asked my son Rob, now a 19-year-old college student, what he remembers about that day and the days shortly after. Here is his response:
Most of my memories of 9/11 do not actually come from the day itself, but those following, as I did not hear the news until late that evening. I was too young to notice or understand any changes in my teacher’s behavior, and she did not inform us of the news, leaving our parents to break the news when we returned home. Even then, as my parents attempted to explain the news, and I saw some new footage, I did not feel like I fully comprehended what had just happened, except that it was apparently very bad.
The next day, things became a little clearer, as we had a “circle discussion” in my classroom at school. I can’t remember anymore the words the teacher used to describe what happened. Even though it was explained to us, I did not feel many of us really began to understand the implications. Some children didn’t care or didn’t understand, some became enflamed with patriotism, as much a 4th grader could muster, anyway. Our school began to instill that feeling of patriotism and asked all students to partake in the creation of a large message of bodies proclaiming in red, white, and blue, that we love the USA.
Though the larger implications of 9/11 were lost on me at the time, I recognized it as the spur that created a time of intense nationalism that became a theme of my childhood.