September 11th, 2001 – Four months removed from college graduation, I found myself in a classroom surrounded by 6th grade students. Why someone believed me capable of this responsibility still seems hard to believe.
Early in the day, I remember a Guidance Counselor (whose office was adjacent to our classroom) coming through and mentioning an accident in New York City. It was a passing thought, at the time, and I continued about my business. Only, a short time later the same Guidance Counselor reappeared with an unmistakable look of concern on her face as she asked me to join her for a moment.
A television in her office displayed footage of the Manhattan skyline. The Twin Towers projected smoke from their upper floors. Broadcasters discussed something about the Pentagon in Washington D.C. Surrealism at its worst in plain view.
And then, in a moment as unexpected as it was heartbreaking, I watched the first tower collapse. And, although removed by over a thousand miles, I sensed the ensuing panic and hysteria.
Back to my classroom. The students could tell something was up. The school now abuzz with frenetic activity. I felt obligated to share something. As best as I could, and with very few answers, I explained to the students what little I knew. That these presumably targeted attacks seemed to be ongoing.
A classroom full of 11 and 12 year-old children immediately transformed. There were tears; students scared for their personal safety; thoughts wandered to family members who lived or worked in New York and D.C. I felt inadequate to assuage the very real distress that my students uniformly wore across their faces.
As the day unfolded, reports failed to improve. Speculation was rampant. The O.J. Simpson car chase notwithstanding, it was the first true, “Where were you when…” moment of my life.
In the days that followed, I understood how little so many things mattered in my life. In a scene I can’t recall duplicated before or since, every television channel broadcasted from only a handful of news feeds. Networks, no matter their typical persuasion, devoted coverage exclusively to the attacks and recovery efforts.
Our nation bonded together. Patriotism soared. And then, over time, normalcy returned.
I visited New York City less than a year following 9/11. There were still many reminders of that tragic day. As I wandered through the city’s vast recesses, headphones on, John Mayer’s Room For Squares became a soundtrack to the many images I took in. To this day, whenever I hear songs from the album, specific visions come rushing back.
I don’t know if Americans are more or less safe now. I hope it’s more.
I do know I live in a flawed country. A country filled with people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs. Some suggest we’re in decline. Things will never be what they once were. The American Dream, as it were, is nothing but a fairy tale no longer possible.
But, I see a society trying its best to figure things out. A country of people striving for meaning and purpose. Maybe being an American isn’t what it once was. That isn’t for me to determine. I’m honored to live in this place, in this time; and since imperfection exists everywhere, I’m happy to make this imperfect spot my home. Here in America.