Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Remembering 9/11 through the eyes of a 6th grader

Watch out everybody, this post is not going to be very funny. But it was written in response to a friend who wanted to know how I recalled the 9/11 attacks, I think mostly because I was in the 6th grade at the time of the attack. Which is an odd age to be during such a monumental event. For the most part, being that age meant that I could remember everything, but I was told nothing. And so...

My memory of the 9/11 attacks begins with a boy named Nick.

Nick and I were never close. Actually we were hardly even acquaintances. I haven't spoken to him since high school, and I will most likely never see him again. But from now on, he is the opening line to my memorized script that I've prepared for whenever someone asks,"where were you when the planes hit the World Trade Center?"

Nick walked up to me in first period art class while I was carving a leaf-shaped stamp out of an eraser. He was bouncing from table to table, telling everyone that "some guy flew his plane into the World Trade Center in New York."

I thought it was an accident. I imagined it was a tiny airplane. For some reason, my mind went to a Wilbur and Orville Wright "flying machine" made of wood. I figured it must have veered out of control.

I frowned as I looked down to keep carving at my eraser."I hope the pilot is okay," I replied.

He sneered, "You don't even know what the World Trade Center is."

Then the game was on. This is the 6th grade version of chicken. Neither party understands, but both keep upping the ante. It can occur, in some instances, when the really popular girl asks, "do you even KNOW what french kissing is?" And of course you don't. But you immediately respond, "Of COURSE I know. I'm not a baby."

She insists, "Then what is it?"

You can feel yourself getting red so you quickly whisper, "I'm not telling YOU. Don't be gross." And you both go back to playing solitaire on your iPod minis.

"You don't even know what the World Trade Center is."

Of course I didn't. I was eleven. But I pretended that I did. And for the rest of the day I kept pretending. And so did my teachers. Although they seemed more focused on pretending that nothing was wrong.

Second and third period, when the towers started collapsing, teachers ran in and out of each other's rooms. The 8th grade English teacher would flit into our classroom to have hushed conversations with my math teacher. He covered their covert exchange with a clipboard or a sheet of paper. Then he ran back to his classroom, and my math teacher began to cry.

And we were copying equations from the board and filling out worksheets.

I don't blame the teachers for not giving us the details. Like everyone else, they were completely unprepared on how to handle this situation. Plus Junior High is an awkward age. Should we be told? We're 11, 12 and 13. We can solve simple algebra equations, but we also decorate our folders with Spongebob Squarepants stickers.

Ultimately, everyone did what they thought was best. But we still didn't know what was happening.  Occasionally we students would forget, for 30 minutes or so, that today was different from any other day. But then another friend would get called over the intercom. "Your parents are here to pick you up" the intercom would say, "please come straight to the office. Do not stop at your locker."

Halfway through the day, we were asked to put our heads on our desks while the intercom played Lee Greenwood's "Proud to be an American." I caught the eye of one of my friends and we started to giggle. When the song repeated for the third time, she let out a muffled snort. And the teacher glared. We stopped. We didn't understand, but apparently this was a serious event. We put on our best serious faces.

And finally, the intercom told us that we were all to go straight home after school. Don't go to your friends house. Don't go to soccer practice. Go home. Your parents need to know that you're safe.

Looking back, it's amazing that our parents were not kept with up-to-date information on our whereabouts. One quick text, and everything would be revealed. But this was the very beginning of cell phones, most of us didn't have one yet. We were too young.

Of course, when I got home I learned everything. My family sat in front of the TV absorbing information until we went to bed. For the rest of the week, information kept pouring in: lists of the fallen, lists of the missing, lists of what was to blame and who we were supposed to start blaming.

On that first Saturday after the 9/11 attacks I woke up abruptly at 6 am. Four days had passed since I was caught giggling to patriotic music with my head on my desk. I snuck downstairs to see if Saturday morning cartoons were on. I clicked through, but every channel was still full of lists and updates and haunting video footage. Disappointed, I switched off the TV and fell asleep on the couch. After four days, cartoons still weren't on, and I still didn't understand why.


  1. Good story. (or good telling of a story, is probably what I mean). I was 22 and in another country entirely, but I'm not going to forget that day. Although, truth be told, it didn't affect me as much as the death of Princess Diana four years earlier. Probably because we used to be a British colony, and Diana was so ever-present during my childhood.

    1. That's interesting! I definitely remember Princess Diana's death as well, but I was even younger. So it even hazier. Mostly I remember how devastated everyone was.