A New Resolve
The night before, everything felt right. I had moved 1,200 miles to a place where I knew no one. I had my first teaching job and felt I was where I belonged. I spent the evening grading papers and watching the Bronco game on Monday Night Football. I remember Ed McCaffery broke his leg and the constant replays of his leg snapping. I went to bed thinking, “How horrible.” My definition of horrible changed the next morning.
I arrived at school early. It was a warm fall morning with clear skies, a bright sun just over the plains. I walked out of my modular trailer classroom in Wellington to go to next door for a cup of coffee. Jenn, a fellow first year teacher had made coffee and the TV was on. I smiled, said good morning, but she said, “Someone just flew a plane into the Twin Towers.”
Less than three months earlier I was on a boat, headed to Ellis Island to find my grandmother’s name. While on the boat, my uncle took picture of me, the two massive towers in the background dwarfing everything else. I remember seeing them in countless movies, even on a sweatshirt when the Yankees won a world series in the 1990’s. Now, someone had flown a plane into it.
“Was it an accident?” I asked. I couldn’t image anything other than stupidity to cause this—some drunken pilot in a twin prop plane.
“No,” she said. “It was a passenger plane.” Her face was filled with a quiet panic, one that comes from being in a military family: this is the reality, and here is what we know.
While I filled my cup the voice on the TV said, “A second plane has hit the other tower.”
Then there was the video. The towers, pillars of our country and our financial health now had black smoke pouring into the sky. The image held me still.
Now it was real. Once was an accident. Twice was intentional. I can’t remember if I sat or I stood. I can’t remember much, other than wondering if my friends and family in New York were okay. My great uncle had worked in the trade center—he spoke about how the world looked from the top of one of the towers. My friend Sidona worked in the city. My friend Chris worked in the city, right across from the trade center. I had cousins who lived in the city near the park. I had no idea if they were okay. I could only imagine their fear. Everything had changed.
I left the classroom, ran back to grab my cell phone and called my aunt. No answer. All I heard was a busy signal. I called Sidona. Another busy signal. The teacher next door came in and asked me, “Did you hear?”
“Yup. Both towers.”
I remember sitting. Saying it out loud made it real.
I don’t remember much of the next few minutes. The time from when the second plane hit the south tower to when I walked out to pick-up my students for the start of the school day seemed longer than eight minutes. I was scared for my family and friends. I couldn’t get a hold of them. I couldn’t remember my last conversations with them, and if I had told them I loved them. I hoped they knew. I was trying not to fear the worst. I needed to be brave for my students. I walked down the hall, heard whispers from other teachers about which group had done this and why. I couldn’t think about that. There was no sense to be made from this.
I remember walking out and my students, as well as the rest of the sixth graders, were scattered on the grass field, chatting, playing. They didn’t know. One boy walked up to me and handed me a note card. The who, what, where, when, why & how, for the most part, were on a note card that read, “Two planes flew into the Twin Towers this morning on September 11th, just before 9am this morning. No one knows why.”
He had a smile on his face. To him, it was just news. He was listening to the radio in the car on the way to school and knew a way to earn Current Events points for my class. He was proud of himself. I can still see his smile, his braces and orange rubber bands still in my mind. We walked inside the school to my classroom, and I taught math. I can’t remember what I taught, but I can remember the teacher next door coming in and saying, “Nine-one-one.” That made sense. Emergency.
I remember my students leaving for PE, and how I turned my TV on to see what was new. I remember calling over and over to see if I could reach anyone in New York. All circuits were busy. I don’t remember much, until the towers fell.
Most of the time at lunch, teachers talk incessantly. It was church quiet. The TV was on, and they kept showing the towers fall over and over. It still didn’t feel real. People fleeing and white powder chasing them until everything was obscured, like swimming underwater in a sea of milk. Once the dust literally started to settle, there were firemen and police digging into the ruble to save people. Reporters tried to keep their voices calm and even. Their panic was as thick as the dust that surrounded them.
The end of the day came. I can’t remember much, other than worrying about my family and worrying people panicking. At four o’clock I was able to reach my family and friends. They were okay, but scared. They weren’t sure what would come next. By now we knew about the Pentagon as well as flight 93. Once I got off the phone, I didn’t know what to do.
When I drove back to Fort Collins, I saw lines down the block for gas, and people walking out of grocery stores pushing two carts at time, stocking up on bottled water, flash lights, canned food. I bought bread, meat and cheese and went home to make a sandwich. I spent the evening in the glow of the TV trying to learn all I could. It seemed like a different apartment.
In November of 2007 I went back to New York and the Trade Center. There was little there, other than a hole three stories deep. It was cold and empty, much the way I felt then, and on September 11th. It was one of the few places in the city of New York where things were quiet. I also went back this summer, July of 2011. It is a different place. The tower that will replace the two is much taller and larger. It will be back, but bigger and better. Signs still cover the fences remembering people and the events. People still gather to tell stories about the miracle church and about people who were heroes.
I remember my grandparents talking, knowing exactly where they were when Pearl Harbor was bombed. The same when JFK was shot. September 11th would be the scar for my generation, but not one to point to just in loss. It is different. This would become a day of resolve, of strength. We would not live a life of fear. It has become a day where many people gained a new understanding what it meant to be an American, one where we would mourn the fallen, but aspire to be like the new trade center: bigger and better.
I still think about Ed McCaffery and his broken leg, the towers breaking and falling, and all the people who have died, but also how something that seems very important can seem small once we change how we see our lives. I think about how the younger generations, the ones who don’t fully understand what happened on September 11th, and how difficult it is to capture in words what this day means. I think about those in our armed services who protect the freedoms we enjoy, and the lives that have been laid for those freedoms. I also think about what the terrorists took away from Americans, but I think more about what Americans have used to replace what the terrorists took away, and how what replaces that is far more valuable. We have a new strength, a new resolve, and we continue to persevere. Where two towers once stood, two new pieces now replace. There is a larger tower that replaces the two, one that stands as a symbol of our resolve to not just move on, but be better. There is also a memorial. It is not just for the victims. It is also for the heroes. It is for those who do what is right, for those who sacrifice. For those who make us sad yet strong. For those who are mournful but courageous.