Sunday, September 11, 2011

Reflections on the Ten Year Anniversary of 9/11

I got up very early this morning to head into Rome for a 9 am memorial mass commemorating the ten year anniversary of 9/11. The sentiment ten years later is quite different from what it was ten years ago: anger, bitterness, disbelief, and the most ignoble of emotions: hatred.

The world is wiser now, at least I hope so, and focused on peace. The mood is reflective, looking to a future of optimism and global camaraderie. No one will forget, as the above pictoral tribute on the cover of a Romanian newspaper shows.

As I drove into Rome it was hard to believe what happened a decade ago, especially on the crisp, crystal clear, blue-skyed day that this September 11th is. I picked up the Sunday paper and was moved to see the entire front page of the Italian Corriere della Sera covered with a moving, water color memorial to 9/11:

After the memorial mass I received a message from Karen, now in the United States, with her reflections on what she was doing at the moment the attack on the Twin Towers took place. Karen is a poignant writer and I've shared her messages before, as I do now:

"a memory if you feel like reading something

I was teaching English to a small group of Saudi students in a pre-paramedic program in the fall of 2001. There was also one Japanese student who had joined the class to brush up his English skills. On September 11, my students were taking a practice
English test - the big test that foreign students must take to study at most universities and colleges in the US. We had finished the listening section, and they started the rest of the test, the grammar and reading parts.

I got up to get a drink of water for myself, and walked by the program director's office - he had his radio on, and the paramedic teachers were standing there, looking grave. "A plane hit one of the World Trade Center towers," one said. How awful, what a terrible accident, I thought. I used to work on Wall Street, I used to take the subway home from the WTC station...I got my drink and then headed back to my classroom, and, as my hand went to the door knob, one of the paramedic teachers came running after me..."A second plane hit the other tower." We looked into each others' eyes in silence. No more needed to be said, we knew then that it was a deliberate attack.

I went to call my husband back in our house 30 miles away. He was killing time before taking a job with a Japanese government agency, the "househusband" that year....I knew he would not be listening to the radio, and we had no TV. He was silent with shock and then he half-whispered, "Don't let it be Japanese who did this, please don't let them be Japanese." I told him to stay in the house in case the kids were sent home, and to stay off the phone in case the school called the parents.

I went into the classroom and sat down, watching my students intensely reading, frowning as they searched for answers. I sat and waited for an hour and a half more, as they worked wordlessly on the test, coloring in the little circles indicating answer a or bor c.... I got up every 15 minutes or so to follow the events on the radio in the paramedic director's office, returning to look at those young men. But they were boys, really.

The Pentagon was hit.

I was old enough to be their mom. One of them had told me I was a year older than his grandmother! (I was 45 then.) Just boys. What time was it in Saudi Arabia, I wondered. Did their mothers know about the attacks? Word came of the US airspace and borders being closed. My students were now stranded in a foreign land; I watched them bite their lips, chew their pencils while thinking; their brows crinkled with the effort of concentrating on verbs and tenses and nuances of words and expressions. How many of my countrymen would see my Arab students as the enemy, would identify them with the the office, the paramedic instructors' faces were ashen with intimate knowledge of wounds and death and grief, of broken buildings and broken bodies. They knew those kinds of wounds, those kinds of deaths. They knew firsthand the courageous fear of the firefighters who entered the towers when all others were leaving.

I went back into the classroom. It was quite, every now and then a student would sigh...erasers rubbed out answers... The Japanese student was here at the college alone, there were no other Japanese students that I knew of. Were there even any Japanese in this town? Who would he be able to turn to in his native tongue, who could truly understand his reaction, who could read his face properly? How would his parents feel knowing he could not leave the US to get to the safety of their home?

The fourth plane was missing.

The students finished the test. I couldn't face it, couldn't tell them at that moment. I wanted to hold that innocence for as long as I could..."Let's go over the answers right away," I said. "Let's not take a break now - we can take a longer one later..." We sat in a small, intimate circle, going over the answers. They added up the the scores of each section, compared the numbers with each other, talked about the hard and the easy questions, as if it were a normal class day. I was desperately holding on to normality as long as I could, keeping the events and confusion outside as long as possible. Was I wrong? Was I selfish? I don't know.

But I do know that I have held those faces, which stayed unmarked, unworried, unknowing for more than two hours longer than anyone else's I knew, held them in my mind for 10 years. I watched them intently as they discussed the answers, shared little jokes, complained about questions, watched them to remember their innocence as I kept them ignorant of the events which had occurred a few hours' drive away. And for 10 years I have held in my mind those faces when I had to finally tell them, in as simple and direct English as I could, what had transpired outside the door the small sanctuary of our classroom.

There was silence. I waited a few minutes, and I calmly rephrased everything - we ESL teachers are skilled in that, repeating ideas and facts in different words and phrases. They asked a few questions then; I quietly answered. They sat in silience again, and I said, "I think you should go to the internet and find the news in your own language." They bolted for the computer room down the hall, and I sat, alone, in my classroom which could no longer be my personal refuge in what had become a terrifying world."

From Rome to Romania, to the United States and all over the globe we are united in our personal memories of what happened ten years ago, and joined in our shared optimism and quest for a better, stronger world of peace.

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