Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11, 2001

I woke that Tuesday morning at 5:45.

It was a routine in my house, you see. My dad would wake at 4:30 to get to the office before the international markets opened. My mom would get up at 5 to drink a pot of coffee while she read the paper. Since we had to be out the door by 7:10, Ginny  slept in until 6:45, the groggiest and grumpiest of the four of us.

Typically, I would check my email first thing, which is what I did this day. The sounds of the computer whirring to life, the "ping pa ping ping" of the dial-up internet, the sound of the AOL lady’s voice welcoming me back… this is my first memory of September 11.

Before I had a chance to check, I heard my mom screaming down to me from the second floor. Unlike most homes that start from the bottom, ours began at the top, a narrow three story built into the side of a hill. If you grew up in Laguna Beach, you know the architecture I'm describing.

“ELIZABETH! A plane just flew into one of the Twin Towers!”

I’m not gonna lie; I had no clue what the Twin Towers were. I didn’t even know where they could be found, what made them so special. Were they in the United States? Yes, plane crashes are not the norm, but honestly, I thought it was an unfortunate accident. I rolled my eyes that my mom was making a big deal out of it.

“Wow, Mom, crazy!” I said, full of condescension. I was seventeen… what can I say?

By the time I’d gone upstairs, had breakfast, gotten dressed and brushed my teeth, my mom had left for work. The TV was off and my car’s radio didn’t work, so my sister and I drove to school in silence; we hadn’t seen or heard anything at this point aside from my mom’s shocked cry an hour earlier.

My first period was photography. I had a project due that day, thus in the moments before class began, I was in the dark room rushing to develop some film.

I missed out on the usual chitchat because I didn’t get to my seat until the bell rang and at that point, my teacher had started talking. He was a tall, gangly man with salt and pepper hair who spoke slowly and methodically, mulling over every word that passed his lips.

“Well, students, this has been an unbelievable and historic morning. You’ll never forget where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news. Things are going to change; things already have changed. If you want to work on your projects, talk to one another, sit in silence, go ahead; I’m making this a free day.”

I sat on my stool stunned. What was the big deal about this plane crash? How many people were on it? Was there someone important who’d died that I hadn’t heard about, a group of school children? I continued to work on my project in the dark room until the bell rang and we moved to second period, which for me was English.

We had a test that day and our teacher was all business; nothing was mentioned.

There was a ten minute break between second and third and out of habit, I headed over to use the ladies’ room. As I was entering the bathroom, a classmate exited a stall with a indescribable look on her face.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” she said.

“What’s happening?”

She stopped and looked at me like I had just stabbed a puppy. “The World Trade Center?!” It was all she said to me, but clearly those four words were meant to have an effect. I had still yet to figure out what was escaping me. Had the plane hit the Twin Towers and the World Trade Center? 

I didn’t realize they were the same thing.

“Oh, yeah, that. Crazy, huh?” I was trying to save face. 

When the bell rang, I headed to my third period class. This was to be my moment of enlightenment, the moment I’ll never forget. My Calculus teacher had the television on and wasn’t even attempting to create some semblance of a normal class (he did this quite often which is probably why I got a “1” on my AP Calculus test).

I’ll never forget the look on his face because it’s what I saw before I followed his line of vision to the TV.

I remember going cold. Numb. I felt the blood drain from my head to my feet, pool in some unknown imagined area. I stood frozen, mouth agape, horrified at what I was seeing for the first time.

I hadn’t heard about a second plane or a second tower. I had not heard anything about the Pentagon. Up until this point, I had no clue the act was intentional. Genuinely, I had simply thought for the last five hours that it was just a plane that had hit a building.

People were throwing themselves out of 90 story windows to escape the flames that licked the glass and metal from the inside out, accepting death as inevitable and desiring to embrace it sooner than later. Over and over and over, on repeat every news station was showing the second plane shooting into the south tower, thick black walls of smoke billowing into the sapphire sky. Video, images, commentators, back and forth, back and forth, from New York to the Pentagon and eventually to an open field.

Men, women, children covered in soot. Crying, shell-shocked, bleeding, dead. Anger, revulsion, sadness, helplessness. In California, it felt like there was nothing we could do but watch.

It was a horrific day. And it had started out quite innocently.

After that third period class, I don’t remember much.

What I do remember is that in the weeks following, I had never felt more patriotic or been more proud to be an American. We were bruised as a country and needed to heal, but we relied upon each other to help get us back to an awakened, less naïve place. The terrorists succeeded in hurting us, but they did not break our spirit.

And they never will.

Photos courtesy of New York Magazine.

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