I had a skewed perception of this world, as I imagined that it was filled with forests, and rivers to fish and become one with. My life was Walden’s Pond, but Thoreau’s pages hadn’t found me yet. The fluorescent lighting in my 4th grade classroom was flickering redundantly; nobody seemed to pay attention to it but me. I was dipping the newspaper in the paste, reading bits and pieces of the local news. A nine-year-old boy had recently caught his arm in farming equipment and every article seemed to be about him. I carefully placed the paper parallel to the previous piece on the paper mache globe I was creating. I thought about the globe and wondered about the depth behind the shapes we called continents. I looked around the room at the Dr. Seuss quote I could recite in my sleep. It read:
The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.
My classmates were playing with each other, and ignoring the project that they were supposed to be finishing. I thought about what life would be like if I didn’t care about finishing things. I hated the nagging feeling of knowing that something with my name on it hadn’t been completed. My friend Whitney ran over to me and whispered to me that our teacher was crying.
Parents started showing up to take their children home.
I patiently sat and finished my globe project while I observed the students and the way that their parents were acting. It was as if they had all just lost their grandparents.
The world seemed so small then, with only few people to be injured and limitless land to explore. I imagined that I would grow old there, and the books I read about cities far away were merely no more than fiction to me. I thought that the renovated jail that sufficed as Burton elementary school was the largest building in the universe, and that my Mother was the most beautiful woman in the world. That my Grandmother’s piano was always going to be within reach, and that everyone else in this world had a life similar to mine. The only thing that kept my finite idea of the world at bay was my collection of books talking about skyscrapers, magic, Mordor and Hogwarts.
I walked to Mrs. Seargent and put my hand on her back. “Is everything okay?” I asked. She looked at me with eyes that I couldn’t understand, but I felt empathy for her pain. She told me to go read my book, or play with my classmates until the school day came to a close. Instead of taking her advice, I walked to the nearest Macintosh computer and started writing the next essay she wanted me to finish by the end of the month. She would give me essay prompts to keep me busy, because I finished all of my projects and wound up with nothing to do. I wrote the essay in that hour. I wrote about poinsettias, and their thick, velvet-like petals. I wrote while my mind was in a different place, a place where I knew why she was so sad and knew what I could do to help her. Court Rammell threw a ball of paper at my head while I wrote, and told me I was a nerd, but I picked up the paper and placed it lightly in the trashcan without saying a word.
The bell rang and jolted me back to the classroom. I ran out to catch the bus, hoping to get a good seat next to my friends, but most of them had already left school for the day. My Mother, who looked solemn and stressed for some reason, intercepted me when I walked out the door. She told me to get in the car. I assumed she had scheduled a piano lesson for me and grunted while I jumped into the passenger seat. Canada, my little sister sat in her car seat smiling with her red hair in a bob with a giant ribbon on the top of it. My mom asked if I had seen the TV screens at school, or if anyone had said anything to me. When I told her no, her response was, “Awesome. You don’t hear about the biggest news of the century, but you come home asking what sex is in preschool.” I didn’t know that was funny at the time, so I stared out the window at the acres and acres of farmland and the Grand Tetons in the distance.
When we walked into our white house, she asked me to sit on a couch we rarely used. She sat across from me like she had when she told me that my cat died in our engine. This time she was crying.
She told me that there was a place on the other side of the country that was filled with skyscrapers, and that millions of people lived there, mainly the rich ones. She told me that there were other countries that hated America, and that they wanted to kill us. The two tallest buildings were called the “twin towers” and they held the largest number of people in the city. Terrorists had boarded planes earlier that day as civilians and then hijacked them, flying them directly into the towers. Luckily, there were other attacks that were intercepted before they hit other historical buildings. She then went into graphic detail about people calling their wives from the planes, and people jumping off of the towers to get away as the structures collapsed. I took all of the information in without crying, but wondering why people would do such a thing. I felt helpless to the fact that there was nothing I could do to help.
As I watched the news clips of the towers collapsing, my world collapsed as well. All of the largest dreams I had of this world seemed so small. “How could there be so much that I’m missing?” I thought. There was a strange pang in my stomach because I wanted to be a part of the world I had never known, but it was bittersweet because I was excited to learn more. I wanted to help the people who were sad that they lost their loved ones. I wanted to be there to help clean up the mess that the people consumed with so much hate had created. As my mom cried and said that she was so grateful we live in a safe place, I felt as though I had cheated everyone by being protected.
I thought about America and what we stood for. We were supposed to be fighting for each other, not hiding in the wilderness with the five people we love most and a piano who’s sound could not echo beyond the walls of the home we had never left. I wanted to be a part of something bigger, even if it was dangerous. I wanted to be a part of America.