Twenty Years Ago

Yesterday, Friday, September 10, I was substituting in a high school graphic design class. At the end of the morning announcements, the young man on the loud speaker asked for a moment of silence in remembrance of 9/11. As the class and I complied, I was struck by the fact that the students standing before me weren’t even alive when the attacks occurred twenty years ago. They weren’t even a gleam in their parents’ eyes.

It was definitely a WOW moment as that reality set in for me.

At times, it doesn’t seem that long ago. But sometimes it seems much longer. Like everyone used to ask, “Where you were when JFK was shot?” (I was only a year old back then), the question now is “Where were you when you first heard about 9/11?”

Ironically, I was in class teaching when an aide came in and whispered that a plane had crashed into one of the towers. At first, the general consensus was a commuter plane had hit the iconic building in NYC. Soon after, we all learned the devastating truth when the second tower and Pentagon were hit only to be followed by a plane crashing into a Pennsylvania field after a group of heroes on board took over the aircraft to keep it from hitting its target where more lives were sure to be lost.

I don’t remember much more about what happened at school that day besides calling home to check in with my family. But I can still see my classroom in vivid detail. Where I was standing. How the desks were arranged. The lighting. I can even remember how heavy my heart felt in my chest.

That evening every TV channel replayed the attacks as more details were discovered regarding what had actually happened and who was responsible. I can’t help but think how unfitting the word responsible is when used in this regard. Usually, the connotation we assign or interpretation we make when speaking about responsibility is positive. A good thing. Like taking responsibility by helping others out or completing a task. Making responsible decisions when facing dilemmas. Being responsible when driving a car or working a job.

Basically doing the right thing.

Certainly not anything like the horrendous tragedy we witnessed on 9/11. Yes, someone was at fault for the devastation which occurred on American soil and where precious lives were lost. Some faction was guilty. Liable. Accountable. Culpable. And unfortunately, also responsible for this heinous crime.

For days, even weeks, we watched as rescue workers and first responders sifted through the wreckage, hoping to find survivors. The pictures captured of the devastation pierced our already broken hearts. Reluctant heroes, but heroes nonetheless, emerged for risking their own lives to save others. For taking the appropriate kind of responsibility for doing what was right and just.

Tributes followed. Monies were raised for grieving families and rebuilding efforts. Families listened to and shared messages sent from their loved ones in their final moments before the plane crashed in PA or the towers collapsed. For weeks, the news revolved around the aftermath. I, along with the rest of the world, was riveted to the TV. I wanted to know everything, hear all the answers, and find out what happened next.

And a few good things did emerge. The outpouring of kindness. The renewal of patriotism whereby stores ran out of flags because all of us wanted to display them wherever we could. The love bestowed to our fellow man. The support given from strangers. And most impressive, the unity of our country that rose from the ashes of terrorism.

We will never forget. Not only was this recited aloud, but it appeared on billboards, on license plates, in photographs, on newscasts and jumbotrons. Everywhere, we’ve seen and heard this promise over the last two decades. And as I see the tributes made today, the twenty year anniversary of 9/11, I know we will never forget that fateful day when terrorists attacked the United States. Like Pearl Harbor, JFK’s assassination, the Challenger explosion and so many more travesties, 9/11 will also be embedded in our minds and hearts forever.

Unfortunately, however, the unity our country displayed and felt in the aftermath of those fateful moments isn’t as easily remembered. I wish it were. I wish we could all together as Americans and not as all the separate subcategories based on ethnicities, cultures, national origins, political affiliation, gender/sexual orientations, personal beliefs, etc., but as simply, all-inclusive Americans.

Or even better yet as humans, neighbors, and children of God. Where united we stand despite and maybe even because of our differences to make this world a better place for everyone. Especially those students who stood before me and in all classrooms across the world yesterday. They deserve that much, at least, and what a tribute it would also make to those who gave all on 9/11/2001.

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