Then Is Now

Early morning sun radiated typical Florida heat as students clomped up the portable’s aged wooden ramp, while slowly transitioning to that semi-engaged seniors’ mindset needed to survive their required English class. Twenty-four teenagers crammed into short desk rows facing the room’s center. Creaky walls and floors. Sluggish AC rumbling. Facial expressions trying their hardest to appear alert. I, hoping that some literary details would ignite interest or imagination. Most likely they, male and female, were thinking about the upcoming Homecoming game and dance.

Or their next class. Or their best friends. Or maybe…nothing.

After all, how exactly did the breakdown of terms and poetic interpretation relate to life as they knew it, or wanted it to be? Personification? Huh? Metaphor? Alliteration? No. Empty wallet. After-school job. No breakfast.

Not exactly similes, uh, similar.

And then the desk phone rang. The husky voice on the other end shouted, “Turn on the TV! You’re not going to believe it!” “Hal? Why are you interrupting my class?” My husband repeated, “Turn on the TV! A plane just flew into the North Tower!” “Hal, we’re in a portable. We don’t have any cable TV!” “Turn it on,” he shouted again. “See if you can get a local channel!”

I turned to face my students who by now were all staring at me with squinty “Huh?” looks. I repeated Hal’s words, and a student quickly reached up to the TV mounted high in the corner. “Don’t worry, Ms. D. We got this.” Chatter broke out among them, intense small-groups formed, and searches began for paper clips as they scrambled to put together a make-shift antenna. Purses and book bags dropped to the floor. No paper clips. I yanked open the desk drawer and found a few, tossing them over. Five minutes. Six minutes. Seemed like forever, though the clock hands seemed to have frozen in time. Eager hands now reaching around the TV connections, causing hissing.

And a picture! Amazing how fast students reach innovation mode or maybe it’s just how they survive their environment. I was awed, but no time for pats on the back as all eyes focused on the small-sized screen. And the image appeared, closer and closer moving toward the South Tower. Absolute silence in the room, followed only by gasps and shrieks as the plane hit the building and smoke plumed out of its upper windows.

For us, the day stopped there. We couldn’t move past it. Instead of seemingly innocuous literary devices of interpretation, we were dealt the stark imagery of now- common vocabulary words. Terrorism. Horrendous.

Pandemonium. Brutal. Ambush. The ensuing air attack on the Pentagon and the heroic attempt to stop another one in Pennsylvania further numbed us. No words available. Just heartache and disbelief. This is America. Couldn’t happen here. But it did. And we all saw it. They for the first time.

Death happened instantly. And more death. Huge fire clouds. People jumping from windows. The country on lockdown. Uncertainty. Are we safe here 1000 miles away?? Are we safe anywhere Answers?

No. Only the loss of childhood innocence for these soon-to-be-adults, who have just now probably transitioned into the real world. At least partly.

And their lives would never be the same. I know. Just as mine wasn’t on the day my high school principal came on the intercom to inform us that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Tx. His stentorian voice almost whispered and broke as he paused to find the right words. And 3000 students chatting and laughing on their way to the next class stopped – probably in mid-sentence – until the air became a vacuum and Mr. Mihalik’s halting words hit beyond our ears, to our hearts. The silence that followed seemed louder than what the tragic gun shots from the 6th floor of the Book Depository must have sounded like. And no picture was needed. Our President was dead and we could not believe it could happen. Not in our country. Even many years later, visiting Dallas and seeing the marker painted on that street where it happened made me weep at the hatred and violence existing in 1963. And weep again in 2001. And today.

As the initial impact of 9/11 eased slightly, I could regain my breath a bit, knowing that I was not directly connected to any victims. But I almost cried when two days later, preparing for my evening college class, one young man rushed up to my desk and quickly spoke. “My brother is missing. My parents are frantic. I’m going to New York to look for him.” The college had a strict attendance policy, but I couldn’t adhere to it. Not in that case. “I’ll mark you present. Go find your brother. Our prayers are with you and your family.” The tragedy of 9/11 was closer to me than I thought. The country, the world is a community, too.

And my son in commercial pilot training at the time, posited possibly interrupting his studies, given the fear of airline danger that had become widespread. I replied, “No. When the airlines resume a new normal, you will be ready to work. You must finish. This has been your dream for a long time.” He did complete his training, but even now after his many years of flying, I still worry about the possibility of a similar attack. And though I often sigh seeing long screening lines at the airport, I accept it as it is, grateful that we, and he, are most likely safer.

20 years have passed. And I know I still can’t change the world or prevent hostility. But I can keep trying to maintain and generate greater empathy for those who have suffered needless violence and loss. I can’t prevent unwarranted attacks, but I will never pick up a gun. Instead, I will try to understand what often leads to attacks and salute those front-liners who serve to protect us. And I will never give up the small pin someone gave me after 9/11 – the pin with an American flag and the words “I am with you always.”

I can’t answer the questions I still have about the why of such violence without looking at the evolution of our existence, survival, cultures, diverse geography, philosophy, except to realize that we are, as we have always been, still human, capable of good and evil by our choice.

And I hope that 20 years after 9/11, my then-students choose to look for the good or create the good, as needed. And to encourage others to do the same.

I know what my choice will be.

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