Where Were You 14 Years Ago?

This photo was taken 20 years ago at Liberty State Park.

This photo was taken 20 years ago at Liberty State Park.

The photo above of my sisters and me at the park barely a twenty minute drive from my home was taken in 1995. On September 10, 2001 that skyline looked exactly the same as it does in that photo. By September 12, there was a mess of smoke. As weeks and months went by it began to seem as though someone had taken a pencil and simply erased the twin towers, with no sign left that they were ever there at all.

I was a 7th grader at Saint Andrew’s, a parochial elementary school, in September of 2001. The 11th was just like any other day. I went to school, I did my schoolwork. I talked and laughed with my friends. I ate my snacks and learned my lessons.

There were a few odd things going on that didn’t make sense until later. The teachers were having many intermittent meetings in the hallway. My classmates and I whispered to each other, speculating about the topic of these meetings. A teacher getting fired? A death among the many elderly nuns we had come to know? But none of us could have fathomed the truth.

After lunch we were not allowed to go outside for recess, instead we stayed in the cafeteria and played Bingo like we did on rainy days. It was such a beautiful day though, I remembered it from my walk to school that morning. Blue sky, puffy while clouds, soft breeze… perfect for double-dutch and dodgeball. But we shrugged it off and studied our Bingo cards.

One of the kids in my class usually went home for lunch, and I remember seeing him in the cafeteria that day. Huh. Perhaps his family had an emergency? If I only knew how true that thought was.

At the end of the day, we said our one traditional prayer as we always did, but my teacher continued, saying two additional prayers before dismissing us. We glanced at each other, confused, but said the prayers like the good Catholic students we were before grabbing our books and going on our way.

Once outside, my friend Ashley and I prepared for our usual walk home when we spotted Ashley’s mom’s minivan across the street.

“What is my mom doing here?”

Ashley barely had time to get the words out before her mom was jumping out of the van, talking a mile a minute. I heard something about planes. Crashes. Buildings. Falling. New York. World Trade Center. Get in the car. Now.

She hustled us into the backseat of the van. We were frozen with confusion and fear. What was happening?

“They can’t find Colleen. They can’t find Aunt Lisa. They can’t find…”

As Ashley’s mom kept talking my mind jumped over to my family members who worked in or directly next to the World Trade Center. My head was spinning.

I don’t remember the short ride from school to my house. I don’t remember what Ashley and I said to each other when I got out of the van. My mom was coming out of my house as I was going in. She said she was going to Aunt Jan’s and told me to stay in the house. I don’t remember why my younger sister, who was in 3rd grade at my school, wasn’t with Ashley and me. I don’t remember when my dad eventually arrived home, with five coworkers in tow, who had no way to get back to their own homes. I don’t remember when I found out that Uncle Mike and Aunt Susie had also made it home. I don’t remember the moment when I realized that so many others never did.

I do remember standing in front of the TV and watching the events of the morning unfold, silently cursing the principal of my school. How dare you not tell me that my family members might be dead. How dare you not tell me what was happening less than 15 miles from the place I lay my head at night. How dare you let me play Bingo and read Shakespeare while my country was in a crisis. How. Dare. You.

Overcome with anger and sadness, I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening watching my dad and his coworkers watch TV, with looks of absolute disbelief on their faces. Six different suit jackets were flung over chairs in the living room, six ties with loosened knots hung around six necks that held up six weary heads. My dad had a look in his eyes that I was certain I never wanted to see again.

One of those men was able to make it back to his home that night. One of the others slept in my bed. The rest slept in my sisters’ beds and on our couches. My sisters and I were sent to my grandparents’ house a few blocks away, where the three of us squeezed into one small bed, curling around each other. I don’t think I was asleep as September 11 became September 12.

When I talked to Ashley later that week, she said that her father, along with many other parents, showed up at school during the morning and afternoon to take their children home. The principal wouldn’t allow anyone to be taken out of class to leave or to speak with their parents. She said all the children will be released at 2:30pm as usual and there would be no exceptions.

Over the course of time my feelings toward my principal softened. She saw an opportunity to protect us, to shield us, to keep us in a happy bubble for just a few hours more. Now when I think about what an emotional wreck I would have been, sitting in a desk in my classroom watching everything happen, I treasure those last hours of normalcy. I’m grateful that I was in my own home, surrounded by people I loved as I realized the severity of the situation. I lot of people think she did the wrong thing by not informing us, and maybe she did. But I still understand why she did it.

With every year that passes I wonder how we all managed to get out of bed on September 12, 2001. But we did it, the same way we continue to do everything- together.

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