By Casey Young
I remember almost everything that happened on September 11, 2001. I remember the booming voice over the loud speaker for the faculty and staff to check their emails immediately. Before this day, I can remember that the only use for that loud speaker was to call the kids to the office who had forgotten their lunch boxes on the kitchen counter at home, but I will never forget the urgency imposed by a voice I had never heard before as it crackled through the old metal speaker in the upper right corner of the classroom.
I remember the blue letter “S” square that was puzzled together with the rest of the alphabet that I so slowly moved to that morning as Mr. Selover turned on the morning news. Turning on the T.V. was normally a tool he used to bribe us to finish our spelling words, but we had just gotten to school and hadn’t even said the pledge yet that morning. The teachers had a different reason to lay their hand on their heart that day and I will never forget the hush that fell over them as we watched a ball of flame engulf the second Twin Tower. The kids in the classroom fell to their own naivety (myself included) as we bustled with the excitement of seeing an explosion. Within three minutes another announcement fell over the now silent classroom. The next thing I knew, all 28 kids in that classroom were huddled into the cubbies where we normally kept our backpacks. The shades were drawn, and the door to our first-grade classroom was locked. I didn’t understand the gravity of that exact moment in time, but it forever stripped my childhood of any care-free innocence. That night, my sister and I watched the news with our parents. We asked questions, but the answers fell silent. My parents hugged us extra tight that night.
The songs we sang at our Friday morning assemblies about the books we were reading and the importance of brushing your teeth were replaced with Lee Greenwood’s rendition of “Proud to Be An American” and “God Bless America.” The word “terrorism” started getting thrown around in the halls as often as “good morning” and echoed through all of us who couldn’t quite grasp what it meant. Duck-and-cover, shelter-in-place, and lock-downs became so uniform throughout the month that we looked forward to them as a break from our math problems. American flags started becoming a fashion statement. The kids who rocked GAP shirts with the American flag on the front were considered the “cool kids.” For the first time, my parents decided to show their patriotism by setting a flag on our mailbox. We needed more than just our birth certificates to enter into Canada to visit family, and with each pass, there were more questions imposed by border officials. My mom stopped taking my sister and I on day trips to New York City. Perhaps it was out of fear, perhaps out of protection, but we used to make monthly trips prior to that fall. In fourth grade I tried out to sing a solo part in the song “American Tears” for our fall concert. The lyrics: “I will always be an American, and I always will cry American tears.” We didn’t sing about eating breakfast, the outdoors, animals, or even school-related topics. This was normalized for any kid growing up in such a devastating time. A time of cleaning, of picking up the pieces of a world that had turned onto itself. A time when “that would never happen here” turned to “that did happen here.” This was my childhood.
The middle school I was sent to was situated in a small town that had three stop lights. A place where everyone knew everyone and nothing bad ever happened. Or at least we thought it didn’t until fear arrived on the doorstep of school. In the three years I was at Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Middle School there were a handful of bomb threats. We would be given two minutes to go to our lockers, get our belongings and return to the classroom to be evacuated to whatever location was suitable for that moment. The high school (which sat on the same campus), the soccer field behind the school, the parking lot, and the singular occasion they just sent us home. For us kids, it was a time to quietly whisper and socialize. We were never scared. We never took it seriously. For the teachers, worry struck their silence. No longer were we watching the news, but we were becoming the news. My parents would ask my sister and I about it as we watched Channel 6 over dinner. We would just shrug and answer in silence. To them, to the community, it was a horrific event that needed immediate consequences. For us, it was normal. This was my adolescence.
High school saw an even different change. The threats seemed fewer in number. As time went on, the adults slowly began to untwist their face, as they got used to the evacuation routes. We grew up numb to it. It was something we were used to. They were slowly adapting to this way of life and I will never forget how annoyed they would get as one teacher would let a “Really? Again?” slip from their lips. But there was a new problem. Terrorism became something that didn’t require a person with a name that was hard to pronounce. It didn’t need a plane, or a bomb, a car, or poison. All terrorism needed was a gun and a crowd. Every night on the news was a new mass-shooting. Terrorism made a transition and now we called it “extremism” and it started happening all the time. Tucson, Aurora, Sandy Hook, and Washington, all slaughtering innocence, security, and life. All happening within the four years I was in high school. A total 56 people died in those shootings and hundreds injured. We felt the tears and the screams and with each headline, a piece of my heart was broken. I would watch the news with my parents and sister. The names of the victims would scroll across our screen and we would all sit in silence. No more questions, because there wouldn’t ever be an answer.
The summer before I left for college two policemen showed up at my door. My neighbor had applied for a handgun permit and they had a list of questions for my parents. She was harmless, but this is the world I became an adult in. No person was considered “safe” and every motive had to be questioned. That fall I moved two states away and watched the world crumble. College connected me to a world I hadn’t noticed before. I started to do my own research on the Middle-East. Syria is being erased from the map. Children are being buried in the rubble and forgotten. Boats carrying hundreds of refugees are being tangled with the sea and never seen again. The deadliest of escape routes, still being attempted because the threat of death is less scary than the promise of it if they stay. Life was, and is, being depleted in such large numbers and I didn’t understand. How could we, as Americans, as people who should be empathetic with fear and loss, ignore such issues? It’s because we’re so numb. We’re bombarded on social media, television, and other news outlets with so much that we don’t even notice how catastrophically upside-down the world has become. I have friends who tell me immigrants shouldn’t be allowed into the United States for no reason other than “Well, we don’t need any more terrorist attacks.” I have friends who “Don’t want to talk about it” because not knowing is better than knowing and not being able to do anything. I am part of a system that no longer pauses for a moment of silence on September 11th. And worse yet, I live in a country run by a bigot who is driven by fear and power. We don’t see it, we don’t feel it, we don’t even notice it, and it’s not our own fault because this is the age we grew up in. It’s the age children grew into adults, adults grew old in, and some left the world holding to their hearts.
I think back to that morning. The day my world changed. Locked inside a small classroom decorated with manor bears and cursive letter, huddled in a two-by-five cubby. Whispers filling the classroom. The teachers blankly staring at each other, and the voice trying to hide fear over the loudspeaker. I think about what it would’ve been like growing up in a world where that day had never happened. Where terrorism, extremism, and fear didn’t exist. Where I didn’t have parents that were afraid to go to the city, friends who won’t go to a movie theater with me, and where automatic weapons were never invented. I wish I would’ve grown up in a world of reckless freedom, but this is the age I grew up in.
Casey is an editor for The Apollos, check out her bio here.