Thursday, September 11, 2014
The first plane hit during the first class change. I was walking between buildings, down my favorite path from the Senior Building, the one where the pear tree roots had buckled the paving bricks and the ground was uneven beneath my feet. One of those ripe September mornings with gauzy clouds. The campus was in its usual bedlam as too many students rushed in too many different directions on this too-small campus that had once been a college, but was now the most overcrowded high school in the district.
I realized something was wrong the moment I entered the front doors of the Freshman Building. The halls were deserted. The three-story, massive brick building was an absolute ghost town. As I passed open classroom doors, I noticed students and teachers clustered around the wall-mounted cable TVs. Ours was a rich public school, one funded by a generous trust, and every single classroom boasted its own TV. All of the normal hollering and chattering, the gossiping at the vending machines - all of it had been abandoned in favor of the TV screens. I started up the central staircase with a knot forming in my gut.
At the top of the steps, I entered my second class of the day, Mr. Hilliard's freshman geography class, and I was one of only two students in the room. The TV was on, and Mr. Hilliard stood beneath it, arms folded, feet braced apart on the tile. He was a Marine, and in that moment, I forgot about the awkward geography teacher he was every day and I saw the Marine in him, front and center.
He turned to me, just as he would turn to every student entering the classroom in turn, and said, "Someone just flew a plane into one of the Twin Towers in New York."
The classroom filled. Everyone was silent. For almost two hours, we stood and watched the coverage, enraptured, horrified, so many of us in tears. We watched live as the second plane struck. We watched the Towers come down.
In my parents' generation, everyone says, "Where we you when JFK was shot?"
Mine is a generation of That Day. Where were you That Day? Where were you when the World Trade Center was hit?
I remember that day with morbid clarity. As a unit, the entire student body demanded to be allowed to see the coverage, and we were obliged. All the way from New York City, the terror, the fury, rolled down to Marietta, GA. For days, weeks, afterward, we went to school dressed in red, white, and blue. We were slaves to the news coverage. We grieved with the fallen and we prayed for our heroes.
This morning, as I watched the anniversary coverage, I was again overwhelmed by the courage of those first responders, by the grace and bravery of ordinary people in the face of absolute nightmare. The footage never becomes less horrific, the hideousness of it is never dulled by time. And I think it's a good thing that my eyes welled up and my stomach hurt this morning. I think we ought to feel that way, because to feel nothing is to forget all those who lost their lives that day, and in the years after. Today I say a prayer for the brave men and women who keep us safe, who run into the fire rather than away from it. We will always move forward, we will always rebuild, we will not squander life, and we will not forgive the loved ones lost to us.