The first time I cut class
On September 11, 2001, I was 15 years old and beginning my sophomore year at Tottenville High School, a New York City public school in the suburbs of Staten Island, which is home to many 9-5 commuters to Manhattan’s financial district.
The morning began much like any other. I had to be at school each day by 7:15 in the morning due to a full schedule. But by 9 am a confused rumbling had begun in the halls between classes... something about today wasn’t right.
When I got to my Spanish class, our teacher did not attempt to start lessons, but instead went and found a boom box radio and had tuned to a local station.
I don’t remember much about what the reports were saying, just that it all seemed very confusing. It was thought that someone had crashed a plane into a building downtown by accident, but the situation was starting to seem more grim that that. Our teacher was clearly upset and had started to cry a bit by the time the period was over.
I got to my chorus class confused, along with the rest of my peers. It was a large class of sophomores, juniors, and seniors, about 90 of us. My chorus teacher was never one to mince words, and we used to class time to talk through what we had heard so far and receive occasional information from other classrooms with access to televisions or radios. All we knew for sure was something terrible had happened, and at this point it seemed quite intentional. I’m not sure if I knew at this point that the buildings had come down.
From there I moved to my honors English class, where our teacher said something brief to the effect of “something has happened, but we’re not sure of all the details, and at this point I need to carry on with my job of teaching today’s lesson.” This did not sit well with the group of anxious teenagers before him, and we proceeded to ignore his pleas for a return to normalcy.
By now, I was growing very worried about my uncle, who worked at Salomon Smith Barney at 7 World Trade. My classmate Greg who sat directly in front of me was worried about his mother, who also worked at World Trade plaza. The kids with cellphones started passing them around to people who had family members they were concerned about, but we quickly realized they were useless.
No calls were getting through.
It was at this point that Greg and I decided to walk out of class. If we couldn’t get clear information about what was going on in school, then leaving seemed like the best option. I had never left school early before, let alone walked out during the middle of a class, and I was emboldened by having another classmate who was willing to leave with me. We also weren’t sure what else might be unfolding: being so close to Manhattan, I truly feared that the city itself might be under attack and I should be at home.
I met no resistance as I walked out of school and down to Hylan Blvd. to catch the city bus. I arrived home around noon. I walked in to find my mother, grandmother, and younger brother all sitting around our floor model Zenith television. I thought my mother might be upset that I’d skipped school, but instead she looked up and said, “oh thank God, you’re here.” She had gone to collected my brother from the nearby middle school, which had proved to be a chaotic scene.
The family had heard from my uncle. He was ok, but he had run from the falling towers, had walked to Brooklyn, and was now trying to sort out some way home. He arrived in the evening. I don’t remember the full story of his day or how he managed to get back. Ultimately, he never went back to work in the financial district.
My family was lucky: we didn’t lose anyone that day. Other kids at my school lost relatives and a handful lost parents. I remember that the two girls in my school who wore the hijab were not seen again for several months, though I never knew them personally to ask them about their experience. One girl I knew in my grade of Indian descent also stayed home for a week or two for fear of retribution. That always felt deeply unfair to me, but at a school of about 5,000 students where emotions were running high, I understood why they felt it might be unsafe.
In the days after, my father, who works for the NYC Department of Transportation, was part of the ground zero cleanup crew, and I could see that it took a heavy toll on his psyche. About a week after the towers fell, I told my father that I had seen a story on television that someone had received a phone call from a survivor in the rubble. He looked at me sternly and said "that person is a liar. No one is alive in there." One of my uncles, who was a NYPD detective, worked the line at Fresh Kills landfill, sorting personal effects and human remains out of the rubble. My family watched the footage repeated on television for months after, to the point where it is seared into my memory.
I don’t know that I will ever fully understand how much the world changed on 9/11, because I myself was at a point of adolescent transition. As I began to move independently in the world as a young adult, the remnants of the attack were hard to miss: the bunting and photographs on local fire stations, the “if you see something, say something” messaging, and of course the hole in the ground downtown. I ended up interning at 55 Water Street about three years later, when everything was still raw and damaged, so my first adult memories of working in the city will always have that hue. I don’t live in New York anymore, but even today, when I step on public transportation or enter a crowded place, I usually take a look around for the quickest exit, just in case something were to happen.