A tribute to a nation forever changed

I almost didn’t write a post for 9/11, but it just felt wrong to let this day go by without something. I would hate the date to become another ho-hum factoid that everyone takes for granted. As the tributes often proclaim, we must always remember. And here’s why.

On September 11, 2001, I was in my third year of teaching at a small Midwestern school, and I was also 8 months pregnant. The school year was new, spirits were high, and I was excited to meet my son in a few short weeks. Imagine my shock when the high school principal rushed in my room, looking panicked, asking if I had the TV in my room. (The school I was in then didn’t have a lot for technology; internet was slow, and the rooms did not have cable TV in each room. Each floor had a TV on a rolling stand to use for showing movies, etc.) I said no, then asked what was going on.

He held up two fingers and blurted out, “Two planes just hit the World Trade Center.” Then he disappeared around the corner, on the hunt for the TV.

Unfortunately, he had made this proclamation in front of my class, so I didn’t have a chance to process this information before the comments starting erupting.

“Cool!” One sophomore said. I turned toward him, blinking with confusion, as I asked him, “Why do you think that’s cool?”

“Explosions are always cool!” he replied.

“Not when people die,” I replied, my mind scrambling in how to make this a teachable moment while also yearning for some extra information. I decided to go down to the office and figure out what was really going on. Needless to say, the mood was somber.

“It’s our boys who are going over there if this is terrorism,” one lady replied, her big eyes sad. “This is bad.”

The other teachers in the office nodded as questions were fired at the school secretary. Did anyone have TV? Could anyone get internet? What was going on? Was it terrorism? Should we just go on teaching?

That last question seems silly, because it was, after all, my job, but the heaviness of a nation changed was hanging in the air, and it didn’t seem right to just go on.

Returning to my classroom, I flipped on the radio, which was crackling with updates every minute. Turning to my computer, I tried in vain to get internet reports or pictures of what was going on. If my students could see what happened, I thought, they would no longer think it was cool.

The mood changed quickly as the enormity of the situation started clicking in my students’ brains. Estimates of ten thousand casualties floated out of the radio. Ten thousand! Eyewitness accounts of seeing the planes hit the building, with the subsequent explosions, turned the light of amusement in the kids’ eyes to one of uncertainty, and even horror.

“This isn’t a video game,” I cautioned my kids. “This is real. This is happening. People are dying.”

And as a class, we sat there, listening to the radio as my computer tried to grab any pictures from the overworked ‘net. (It would take three hours for a single web page with pictures of the event to load.)

Then one of the towers collapsed, and the mood blackened even more as the radio reports fretted about the number of people left inside when the building collapsed. Reports of jumpers caused the kids to look at each other, their eyes betraying the cool facade they tried to present.

I began to suspect that many of my students didn’t understand what the WTC even was — what it looked like. After all, Manhattan was far enough away from Iowa that it might as well have been in a different hemisphere. All of that was “over there.” Most small-town Iowa activities did not concern the WTC, so why bother?

“Why can’t they just get everyone out of there?” one girl asked. Her question was answered by the reporters, who talked of elevators that didn’t work and people trying to flee down hundreds of flights of stairs. Deep inside, I think we all were wondering: would we be able to make it out?

Then the second tower fell; the decimation seemed never-ending.

I don’t remember much about the latter part of the day, mostly because as the news reports continued, and the story of Flight 93 came out, I knew that my country had been indelibly changed forever. I disliked the feeling of doom that permeated our little school, and the chaos-spreading rumors that caused normal adults to act like panic-stricken teenagers. Our principal gave everyone permission to go uptown and get gas, as he had heard that a gas shortage was imminent as a result of a pending war with countries that supplied our gas. Going home, I noticed that the lines wrapped around the block for the handful of gas stations in town.

I thought about the baby growing in my tummy, and what the future held in store for him. I tried in vain to dampen the ever-growing panic in my gut.

The next day, I had an OB appointment in a neighboring town. After the appointment, I went to Wal-Mart for some quick shopping. It was about 10:00 a.m., and the store was nearly deserted. This from a Wal-Mart! The usual chatter over the PA system was silenced, and all the TVs in the store were tuned to the same channel, which showed the President as he tried to calm a nation in turmoil. His speech echoed around the empty store, and I still recall the surreal feeling of being in Wal-Mart with hardly anyone else there. As the President continued to speak, I became aware of yet another noise coming from the back of the store. Evidently, some senior citizens had gathered for bingo in the delicatessen area, and I heard their intermittent cheers as one lucky soul or another won a round. Life tried desperately to go on as normal, but no one felt normal. Everyone I saw in the store seemed to have that same haunted look that said, “Do you know if life will ever go back to the way it was?”

That experience remains the most poignant of those days after 9/11, because it was the most obvious evidence that our nation had something horrible happen to it, and for once we were paying attention. For a few days, we didn’t give a crap what Britney Spears was up to. For awhile, we were truly united.

Look back, remember, and keep the American dream alive. It’s there. It always has been.

Let’s make sure it always will be.

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