Half a lifetime ago, I was a fifteen-year-old girl who had just begun her sophomore year of high school and was still not back in the swing of the school year. I was in the car with my mother on the way to school one pleasant, blue-skied Tuesday morning. We were driving on an overpass, the Z100 Morning Zoo blaring out of the radio when one of the DJs suddenly said, “Hey, I think I saw a plane fly into the Twin Towers!”
What? It didn’t make sense. All my life, the Twin Towers–the World Trade Center–had loomed, two huge silver buildings at the foot of Manhattan, distinct from the other towering figures anchored in Manhattan’s bedrock. When I arrived at school, on a mission to get myself switched from Earth Science into Chemistry, the DJ’s exclamation left my mind.
I went to a large public high school in Queens, New York, one of the many schools built for about one thousand students and instead, in that fall of 2001, buzzing with about three thousand kids. We were packed in the halls like sardines, jostling and bumping as we moved up and down the four floors. But because there were so many of us, our schedules were staggered and we started and ended school on shifts. That day, as every period brought another group of kids in to start their days, the rumors spread across the school.
Two planes flew into the Twin Towers. The towers fell. What? No! How could those things collapse? There’s another plane that got high-jacked and it’s heading to the White House or the Capitol Building or something. The president–George W. Bush at the time–was flying around in Air Force One avoiding one of these rogue planes.
These days, when I hear of something horrible happening in the world–and horrible things happen in the world with frequent regularity these days–I turn to Twitter and Facebook. When bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon a few years ago, I immediately texted my college roommate, a Boston resident, to make sure she wasn’t downtown. But in 2001, Facebook was still three years away from addicting us to the Internet, Twitter wasn’t yet a twinkle in any techie’s eyes, and texting wasn’t really a thing. Some kids had cell phones, but most didn’t. The first generation iPhone wouldn’t be out for another six or seven years. We had computers in school, but only really in the library, and I don’t remember being anywhere near them that day.
Ninth period. Second floor. Advanced Placement World History. We’d barely begun the long meandering course we’d have to take to get to the test in May. We started AP World History at the very dawn of human society, like that scene with the caveman banging the bones in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but on that day, we were peering out of the windows, because sometimes, on a clear day, midtown Manhattan was visible from that part of Queens. Our classroom did not face the city, but our teacher finally told us the real events. I suspect the teachers had been watching or keeping track of the events of the day on TV and the Internet in their offices. And as she told us what happened–that the Towers had crumbled, that the subway into the city was suspended, that the other planes had hit the Pentagon and come down in a field in Pennsylvania, I think we all sat there shocked.
It didn’t seem real–and yet it was so, so real. Some of us knew people who worked in those buildings or in places close by. Others had fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles in the police, the EMTs, or in the fire department. Most of us had grown up in a privileged American bubble of safety and that bubble was pierced and busted that day.
It’s so odd how I can remember things about that day so many years on–they come clearly, yet filtered in the hazy confusion of the day and the further haze of a decade and a half of time. I didn’t lose anyone in the attacks and for that I am profoundly grateful, but I did lose that sense of American exceptionalism, if I’d ever had a sense of it before. I lost that bubble of security. I get nervous when I see and hear low-flying planes, which can be a problem when you live in the flight path of two of the nation’s busiest airports.
I have the footage of the planes flying into the Towers and the Towers crumbling down in dust imprinted in my mind for all of eternity. When the Towers came down, the local television transmitters came down with them, leaving those of us without cable at the time with only one channel into the autumn and winter–and all they ever played was the horrible footage from that day. Underneath the rubble, Ground Zero smoldered with flames and thick, black, acrid smoke for several months–the smell carried into Queens when the wind turned and from those places where you could see downtown, like the 59th Street Bridge, a column of smoke curled up from the site.
Time has passed. Our country was swept up into patriotism right after; American flags were suddenly everywhere and while the American pride was heartening in some ways, it also, to me, already a history nerd at that age, signaled a sign of jingoism. People compared 9/11 to Pearl Harbor–and what happened after Pearl Harbor? Japanese internment.
We went to war not long after. Terrorism has risen and been in the headlines ever since. The World Trade site downtown has been developed and built on again. Babies have been born; the babies born in 2001 are now sophomores in high school. Digital technology has advanced at breakneck speed. Gay marriage is legal. Emergency workers who worked tirelessly at Ground Zero continue to get sick and die.
When I was doing my last-minute preparation tests and studying for the AP World History test in the spring of 2002, I paid particular attention to the events of the 20th century. Because they were modern history, we hadn’t covered them in any great depth; we’d kind of run out of time, so to speak. I could name all of Henry VIII’s wives, but modern world history eluded me. So I read chapters and summaries about Vietnam, the Northern Irish Troubles, the Korean War. I learned the domino theory and about the Iron Curtain, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the Munich 1972 Olympics, Iran-Contra.
I turned toward the last few pages of the Barron’s Review workbook, to read about the Gulf War, which happened when I was a toddler. Then there was the Oklahoma City bombing, when I’d been in elementary school; I remember watching that unfold on television. But at the very end, Barron’s covered the events of 9/11. Only a school year later and September 11, 2001 was already in the history books.