Memories are odd. They come and they go as they please. And sometimes, when we desperately try to remember something, like a person’s name only seconds after meeting them, it feels seemingly impossible. As if that moment in time never really happened.
But yet, there are some moments, some memories, no matter how long ago they swept us off our feet, seem to be waiting patiently for us, whether or not we’re ready for them, to jump back into our arms and be retold. To be relived.
None of us will ever be able to forget where we were on the morning of September 11, 2001. We won’t be able to clear our minds over what we were doing right before we heard the rumors of the news, or saw with our own eyes the images on TV, or felt our stomachs cave in around the very immediate fact that hundreds of people would never be able to escape the inside of those buildings.
This is what I remember:
I remember sitting on the blue-carpeted floor of my 8th grade classroom. The lights were off and we were spending first period watching a film about an August Hamas terror attack that killed 15 people, including an American boy, in a crowded Sbarro restaurant in Israel.
I remember watching a few people around me in tears, because they knew him or his family, or because they knew someone in Israel, or because we were only in the 8th grade and we just couldn’t fully understand.
I remember thinking to myself that this could never happen in America. This could never happen to us. Three girls behind me were preoccupied passing notes written from their milky pens and a boy in front of me was slyly mouthing a morning snack. We were living in a different, separate, world from what was on the television screen. This was all something that happened at such a distance that we didn’t dare to measure.
I remember our assistant principal barging into the classroom, flicking on the lights so fast my eyes and body reacted with a sudden sense of shock, like when someone comes behind you and screams, “Boo!” His delicate whispers shook the inside of my teacher’s ear ever so exotically that his whole face became flushed with a sudden sense of panic. We were all told to go back to our homerooms immediately. To not ask questions, though we didn’t need to. We all knew something was wrong.
That something had happened.
I remember sitting Indian style on top of a wooden desk, as my teacher held her head in her sweaty palms. As the anchor on NBC spoke in such a fragile tone, her words echoed by her heavy breathing as she tried to make sense of the chaos that just struck New York City.
I remember sitting so close to the person next to me that I felt as if we were one person, with one racing heart, that beat in a rhythm so loud that it felt like someone was banging on a steel drum.
I remember watching the black frame of the television become colored with bold hues of gray and tan and black and then all of a sudden a burst of orange and yellow spewed out of the sides of the building. The news anchor informed us, this time more certain, that another plane hit the second World Trade Center Tower. She told us, this was not an accident. All I could think about was the people on the planes, in the buildings, on the sidewalks, how loud they must have been screaming for help and that no one could hear them.
I remember seeing skinny, dark, objects flying out of the buildings. Asking out loud, “What are those things?” Someone said smoke, another said birds. One boy said, “No, those are people. People are jumping from the buildings.” And now I know that he was right.
I remember hearing people screaming in my classroom, drowning out the loud silences of those sitting in such remarkable shock. Names of terrorists and bombs and countries that I heard about before, but couldn’t locate on a map were free flowing throughout the tiny room. A dozen thirteen-year-olds trying to piece together what was playing out in real time for us on the television screen.
I remember shouting out, “This isn’t what you think! It is not possible for someone to attack the United States or bomb us!” Because someone told me that, once. People took my words into their hearts like ice water putting out the fire. They looked me in the eyes as if I really knew something they didn’t and because of that, they felt safe.
After I said it out loud, I knew it had to be untrue and I gulped down a sense of panic because I no longer felt safe in the truths I had believed.
I remember minutes passing, slowly, while none of us could look away from what seemed like just colors filling up the television screen. Then all of a sudden, as if the worst had already happened, the buildings started to collapse.
I remember realizing, for the first time in my life, that everything in the world could change in a second. Things that took years to build, create and implement could suddenly fall apart in an instance. I no longer felt safe.
I remember wondering when this would all end, waiting desperately for someone to come on the television screen and say that this was not as bad as it looked and everything, everyone, will be okay.
But because some memories never let us down, I remember that they never did. I remember finally understanding one thing that day, and one thing only. The world would be changed, for good. Forever.