I was just outgrowing the period in my life when my hands were often sticky for no apparent reason. Which actually meant any number of reasons. Glue sticks. Caterpillars. Playground gunk. Art class clay. Pop tarts. Fruit roll ups. Smuckers had yet to come out with PB&J sandwiches that were self-contained and crustless.
I was in third grade and in a classroom in a suburb of DC. A suburb filled with families who had strong ties to the government. Many of us lived in the area because our parents had work in the government. I was sitting in our classroom trailer, an expansion that had to be made due to swelling numbers at the elementary school. We were given a lot of free time that day. I think our teachers didn't know what to do with us.
I remember the intercom calling in to ask that the teachers release student after student for dismissal. I remember with great clarity thinking after the fourth or fifth student was called, that an awful lot of kids had dentist appointments that day. Soon, my class dwindled to 10-15 students. We were called to assemble with the class next door, our sister class in the GT program.
The teachers began to explain that something very serious was happening. I don't know how they were able to keep it together in front of us, but they did. They used the words attack and emergency. They told us that the reason why so many kids left was because their family wanted them at home so they could be together during this. No one knew what would happen next. I remember wondering why my parents didn't take me home. I wondered where my father, who worked in DC, was. My parents both work, I reasoned, so maybe they didn't know yet. Maybe they were trying to leave and got caught in traffic. Maybe they thought I was safer at school.
The teachers turned on the TV. I wondered how they came to that decision, showing us the footage of the wreckage. The planes flying into buildings. The reporters told the developing story as live footage showed men and women jumping from buildings to their deaths. What was it like, I wondered, for the people trapped inside? I thought through the smoke, the glass, the fire. It was cardboard and fog to me, and I knew it. People were dying for no reason and I sat in a tin building on a carpet, watching.
No one cried. Not a one of us in that room. None of the children anyway. I have a dim memory of one of the teachers tearing up soundlessly as we watched the buildings collapse. You see it, you can verbalize images you are seeing on screen, but none of it makes sense. You can't, as an 8 year old, explain it. Kids began to ask questions, slowly, deliberately, but not a one began to panic. I don't know how our teachers were able to answer them without being set off. I really don't.
I remember going home to my parents. They told us about our neighbors who were close, very close to the attack on the Pentagon. Everyone was calling their loved ones.
I remember asking my parents if we were next. Was our house or school the next target? And my parents, ever the realists, responded that I was just fine-- because why on earth would anyone target a school or a residential neighborhood when there were much more critical targets? I appreciated that answer, because it was honest. I could go back to that reply and know it was true-- not some lies that they had fabricated for me to go to sleep at night and leave them alone. No one knew what came next. No one knew when the sky would stop falling.
I remember my sister, then in first grade, coming to me crying. She was so very young back then, she was so emotionally tender. To her my parents' words were absolutely no solace. I told her everything would be okay. I did not know if it was true, but I said a lot of things to the effect of "this will all be over soon and everything will be happy again." As a big sister in times of crisis, it is not your job to be right. I don't know that she believed me when I said it, either, but I think she wanted to, and that was enough.
I was in third grade, and the next day there were many moments of silence. There were children at my school who lost a parent or became orphaned. None of them were in my class. I remembered a brother and a sister, though. I remember the school trying to set up a support system for them. How do you get a school of children to grasp and appreciate that kind of loss? How does one understand anything of that magnitude?
My sister, to my knowledge, has very little memory of what happened that day. I remember a lot of it. I remember that we, as kids, weren't the same. I remember getting into political debates with other third graders (I'm not even joking). We didn't understand a whole lot, but we were scared enough and angry enough to have opinions.
I remember looking at the sky anxiously. I remember recess bells and fire alarms becoming ever-more serious. I remember for the first time ever doing tornado and earthquake drills on a frequent basis. My Northern Virginia school was not located anywhere near a major fault line. No, our earthquake drills were likely not at all for earthquakes.
I remember insecurity. I remember feeling that I was not really safe anywhere-- that my bodily well-being was at the mercy of madmen who could be anywhere, at anytime. My parents had a funny way of comforting me, by telling me that I could die in a car accident, or a fire, or a break-in, at any time, and that that was no excuse to stop living my life. I feel like that's not the route most people would take with their 8 year old in a time of crisis, but that's the one they took and I turned out okay.
I remember swing sets filled with kids scanning the horizon for airplanes that looked too big, too close. I remember thick tension in the air during the moment of silence after the Pledge of Allegiance. I remember being confused as to why our flag in front of the school wasn't flying at the top of the flag pole. I remember my friends not being allowed to watch TV anymore because of what they might see on it. I remember teachers creating lessons to explain the words we heard like "terrorism" and "patriotism". I remember TV specials about firemen and rescue workers. I remember the crackling sounds of steel, concrete, and flesh crumbling in on itself like a withered heart crushed in thick, murderous hands as I heard it played over and over, as I almost obsessively played the footage on TV and in my head as I tried to make sense of senseless destruction.
People often ask, "Where were you?" on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. That's where I was. In third grade, going from wondering about why today was such a popular date for dentist appointments to trying to comprehend a national tragedy.