Every generation has that moment – the one you tell your grandkids, the one which you can recall exactly where you were and what you were doing. For my mother, it was President Kennedy’ assassination. She was thirteen at the time and remembers it like yesterday. I grew up listening to that story, fascinated by the tragedy that struck an entire nation all at once, and that changed the course of history. I now know the story I will tell my grandchildren. I know it like it was yesterday.
September is beautiful in Tennessee, and the eleventh was the epitome of all that was young and free. The morning air felt like walking into the ocean, and the sky was perfect blue. Tuesdays were my favorite days of that early school year: double-periods of gym, humanities, and art. It was everything a senior could want in a schedule. My morning gym class took the school’s activity bus to a nearby driving range to practice our golf swings. Some of my best friends were in that class. We donned our gym shorts and shades, and we joked about our pathetic attempts at hitting golf balls for an hour. I remember being joyous, loving my life and the promise of the present.
The forty or so seniors in that class piled back into school just as classes changed. I was on autopilot, beaming from the fresh air and sunshine as I climbed the stories of our ancient high school which sits in the heart of downtown Nashville. I didn’t notice the strange, somber faces in the hall; it is the nature of a seventeen year old to be self-centered. As I left my friends and entered my homeroom, I encountered a foreign sight. Small groups of students huddled, talking low and staring at nothing. My teacher stood on a chair trying to make a mounted television work. We had never watched TV in homeroom before. I do not recall whom I first asked, but I asked someone. “Hey, what’s going on?”
Do you ever have the experience of listening to someone but not absorbing what that person says? Her words bounced off me rubber bullets, creating unexplained pain. Plane crashes. World Trade Center. Pentagon. “Wait. What?” We pulled a third into our conversation to re-explain. My mind began turning. I couldn’t even remember what the World Trade Center actually was. My eyes lifted to a static-y television scene to see a replay of the second plane hitting one of the towers, the other tower like a smokestack behind it.
The teacher asked us all to move to the room next door where there was a working TV. I sat on a cold tile floor staring at footage that is forbidden now. We watched the first tower sway, news anchors attempting to comment on what seemed to be an inevitable collapse. After it fell, we saw people from the second building leap to their deaths, preferring to die in the air than the rubble of a building. I had to keep reminding myself that it was real, it was live, and it might only be the beginning.
Eventually, we were sent to our next class, which happened to be a humanities class. We spent the entire time talking about the whys and hows and what ifs and what nows. Our building was put on lockdown because it was surrounded by governmental buildings. I looked out the windows from the third story classroom. No cars on the busiest street in the city. Planes had been grounded, leaving an eerie silence overhead. An armed officer patrolled the block around the federal courthouse across the street. It felt like a nation was holding its breath.
As the day wore on, the lockdown was lifted. People slowly made their ways home. We, as a nation, began to get clarity on what happened and why, we, as a generation, began to see the implications. We knew there would be a war, and, more than that, we knew it was probable that much of our lives from that point would be defined by that day. I remember crying one night at work because an older co-worker began excitedly talking about war and how there would probably be a draft. All I could think about were my brother, my boyfriend, my friends. It was not his generation that would pay the price.
Looking back on it now, I refuse to be cliche, saying that I grew up that day, or that things were miserable after that. There was never a draft and, while I have friends and relatives who served in the wars, they did so voluntarily. I didn’t lose a loved one that day, and I was not tangibly effected by it. I will say, though, that a cloud settled over us that day. No one of an age of understanding was unchanged. And in my tiny little sphere, our perspectives changed. The feeling of invincibility that comes with being seventeen was gone, and in its place was a deep respect for frailty and resilience, as well as an understanding of the big picture.
I wish that generationally-defining moment was a beautiful one which I could share with children and make them smile. But, if we are honest, it is not the beautiful moments that change us. They are good, but they don’t grow us. It is through trials that we develop hope, perseverance, and maturity. We are a nation that is more mature now than it was on September 10, 2001. Let us pray, fervently and sincerely, that we do not forget.