A Life Lesson Learned Outside the Classroom
Sept. 9, 2011
It was a “Late Day” at my central Ohio high school when I first heard of the attacks on the Twin Towers. Despite the years passing and my absolutely atrocious long-term memory, I still have some incredibly vivid, image-laden recollections of that day, even 10 years later. The only reason I heard anything on the radio about it was due to my being late for the Late Day, typical for me at 16. They came on reporting that a plane had crashed into the first tower, and it really seemed like it was an accident. It was almost inconsequential; the news story of the day, to be sure, but nothing local and with very little personal impact. Even when the second plane hit in chemistry class, it didn’t quite register – two plans hit buildings right next to each other? What are the chances? Someone had to point it out to me within minutes for me to fully comprehend. Perhaps it was the shock – but maybe also some subconscious part of my mind didn’t want to accept it. My world was being turned upside down, and I didn’t want any part of it.
I was incredibly fortunate – all the way in Ohio, I didn’t know anyone yet who worked in that area where the attacks occurred. We tried so hard to get TVs on in our classroom, and we all dropped our lab duties to focus on what was happening. When the bell rang to send us to second period, we slowly made our way to our next class (mine was math) and stopped to find friends and assess the situation. We slowly obeyed when the second bell rang for our next class. In each room TVs were on and we all huddled around them, trying to wrap our minds around what was happening.
I remember from that day something that I will never forgive to some degree in my mind. In my math class, my teacher wouldn’t turn the TV on. Students were crying, talking, unable to focus (obviously), and my teacher wouldn’t let us watch the events. She wanted us to “focus on our work.” Focus on our work? Our world was being slowly torn apart, piece by piece like the debris falling from the towers, and we were supposed to be learning Trigonometry? Really?? We actually had students get up and leave my class, ones who had personal reasons, such as family, friends and loved ones in the city at the time, and march down to the principal’s office to make a plea to watch the events and call their parents. Fortunately, my next class was history, so we had the TVs on full volume, watching, mesmerized, trying to soak it all in through the shock and horror. Through it all, I was stoic. Shocked, but I didn’t cry. I didn’t really know what I felt yet, or what to feel, to some degree.
At lunch, we were allowed to call our parents to take us home. I called my mom, just wanting to get home. I remember it hit me like a ton of bricks as soon as I saw my mom and got in the car – I was no longer safe. My beautiful, free, safe and happy country I lived in was no longer safe. People could murder innocents en masse for no apparent reason, and it was a pivotal moment in my life. This intense sense of security and safety was shattered. I had no idea how safe I had felt until I no longer felt it. It all hit me so fast that I literally laid across the seat in the minivan and just sobbed uncontrollably. My poor mother sat in the driver’s seat, helpless to comfort me, as we drove the short distance home. I think in many ways it was a test for her – how do you address something like this with a child who has always thought the best of people? Who would never imagine people could be so evil? Who couldn’t comprehend what we had done to make ourselves and our country the object of such pure hatred? It was a realization in my life that I could never really recover from. I spent my life learning about the holocaust, slavery, human rights abuses around the world, and somehow it had never felt personal. This was personal.
I will always think the best of people. I can’t help it to some degree. I do, and will always, no matter what, believe that people are inherently good. I refuse to let go of that mindset and let myself constantly be suspicious of motives and personal agendas. It’s no way to live. But something changed that day. Evil touched home. Some changes were even good – as a country we found a unity, a common ground, with our fellow Americans that didn’t exist in the same way as it did after the attacks. The problem is that the unity we felt with our fellow Americans somehow also isolated many people and made us suspicious of our fellow Americans who were Muslim, Middle Eastern, or otherwise “foreign.” Xenophobia blossomed in a new, re-ignited way. There were “revenge killings” of people who were targeted just for their religious beliefs. The crazy thing is, that was just as shocking to me as the events in the first place. How could we do that? React like that? Turn into those terrorists that we alternately loathed and feared? Things have changed since the immediate aftermath of those events, but there is still a little seed inside many of us. A suspicion of those who differ from us, who may have some distant, possible motive to do us harm. We live to some degree in a still-volatile environment, where things could change any day now and something could happen again and set us on a different course.
We’re still a little lost from time to time, but one thing is for sure – no matter what happens, how devastating things can be, we are all blessed to have an intangible connection to each other that is there indefinitely. There is something so intensely raw and human about that connection, which serves to remind us of the sanctity of life and exactly how amazing it is to wake up in the morning and just live, no matter how we do it.
- Eleni is a young professional who recently relocated from Pittsburgh to Chicago. Her blog will be up shortly, focusing on exploring a new city and adapting to a change in scenery.