no words

On September 11, 2001, at 8:46 a.m., I was giving a test to my Latin 2 class. I was teaching at a college preparatory magnet school then. My students were quiet, bending over their papers, trying to translate the story I had given them.

Shortly before nine o’clock, another teacher came to my door and told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. At that moment, none of us was thinking of terrorists. It was just a terrible accident.

About ten minutes later, the same teacher returned to tell me that a second plane had hit the other tower. My mind could not wrap itself around this information. I returned to monitoring my class, but my face must have given away my confusion, because a student asked me if I was upset. I don’t remember what I answered.

By the time they had finished their test, another plane had hit the Pentagon. As my students handed in their exams, I pulled the television out of the closet and asked a couple of students to help me get it tuned to a news station. Once we were able to see the towers burning, no one could take their eyes off of the scene in Manhattan. We watched the first tower collapse, and I thought, “How can this happen?” I remembered the World Trade Center being built when I was growing up outside of the city. They were twin Atlases, supposedly indestructible, holding up the sky over New York.

My husband called me. He was on the road, as he frequently is, and was phoning from a motel along I-70. He said that he had gotten in the shower, thinking that the scene on television was a movie, but when he got out and began getting dressed, he realized that it was real. He needed to call, just to say to another person, “Can you believe this?” Our conversation was brief.

I ate lunch with a few other teachers before heading down to my other school. While we ate, someone came in to say that the second tower had collapsed. By then we were starting to put it all together, figure out what it meant. People had died; that much was real.

At my second school, students were signing out and going home. One commented that she didn’t feel safe. I responded that there was little chance that terrorists would hit the high school (an ancient, decrepit building in the middle of the city), but she was not convinced.

No Latin happened that day in my class. We talked. The students were, for the most part, angry and upset, blaming Islam for the disaster. I argued that religions don’t kill, people do, and that to condemn an entire religion for what had happened wasn’t fair. They said, “Nuke ‘em,” and for the first time I realized that the entire world might be at war soon.

That night we watched the news –there wasn’t anything else to watch. One reporter after another spoke, incredulous that such a thing could happen. I kept copies of the newspapers from that day, though I don’t remember now where I put them.

What happened was shocking, awful, tragic — an event that words cannot capture. In the days afterward, though, it almost felt as if we had been reborn. I remembered my parents talking about D-day, Pearl Harbor, and the end of WWII. I remembered the end of the VietNam war, feeling that nothing would ever be the same, that everything would have to be different now. Pure idealism would be reborn, cynicism would die, and we would all be better people.

But real change is hard to gauge. I suppose we did change that day, but it mostly has felt like life going along the same path. We go through airport check-points now, dutifully take off our shoes and pack our shampoo in tiny bottles. We all remember where we were, what we were doing, how we first couldn’t believe it, and gradually realized the truth.

If our rights have been restricted because of what happened, then the terrorists have won. I remember a conversation with my mom, her saying that giving up freedom for security might make sense. “Once we’ve given it up, we’ll never get it back,” I replied. And I believe that’s true: it’s easier to hold on to freedom than to reclaim it.

Nine years, it’s been, and yet it hardly seems that long. The shock has worn off, and complacency is beginning to return. We have so much freedom in this country that we take for granted. I hope we will never forget what we have, or simply give it away, thinking we will be safer if we do. If that happens, we will have lost.


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