Sunday, September 11, 2011

Learning to Remember

I was in a study hall period in 8th grade when I first heard that a plane had collided with one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The room was in a sort of remote part of the school, tucked away, budding off of a lone hallway that comprised the third or maybe even fourth floor of Cape Elizabeth Middle School. I remember a teacher coming into the classroom with a grave, deadly-serious face, taking aside the study hall monitor and exchanging some urgent, hushed news. I can't even remember who the study hall monitor was -- I remember what she looked like: tall with a boyishly cut crop of brown hair that fell just above her shoulders. She was young and taught Spanish, so I never actually had her for a class because I studied French. Her youth translated to an automatic air of almost being "cool", but as I remember she was meanly sarcastic and kind of a hard-ass. But I cannot for the life of me remember what her name is. I guess I haven't thought about her much over the past few years, but now, looking back, every forgotten detail carries a small but significant guilty weight. I know it's unrealistic to expect perfect recall in such a situation, but still, I can't even remember the name of the teacher whose classroom I was in? I can't remember how she broke the news -- it was still in the morning, and I think at that point most of the details were unknown, or at least kept from the students, for our own benefit of course.

It's difficult to write about 9/11. I'm not even remotely under the impression that I'll be able to write anything original or particularly insightful about it. To be honest, I feel a little reluctant about it. After all, what could I, who am perhaps as detached from the attacks as anyone in America, possibly have to say about it that would be worth reading? But it's been on my mind for the past week or so, and I can't help but feel a sense of, I don't know, almost responsibility to share what I've been thinking. I suppose every year in the weeks preceding 9/11 it's impossible not to think about it to some degree. Typically, though, my remembrances would more or less begin and end at the same place. "Man, it's really awful what happened, I feel really sorry for everyone it affected." I don't want to sound cold or uncaring, but I've never had anything but minimal ties to New York -- physically, emotionally, inter-personally, or otherwise -- and it's hard to empathize with beyond what you've encountered.

I think I was in the cafeteria, waiting in line for lunch, when I found out that the planes had been flown into the towers by terrorists, and that there was an attack on the Pentagon and that another hijacked plane had crashed. 13 years old doesn't sound like it should be too young to be able to realize the importance of what was happening, to understand the reality of the devastation. And looking back, I was clearly completely incapable of grasping the profound way in which our country would be necessarily and forever changed -- "So a couple buildings in New York City fell down. I get that it's a Big Deal, but what difference does it make to me?" I guess there's no point in holding my 13 year old self to the moral standards of an adult. I know I can't change how I felt or reacted, but I wish I could. I remember joking around with some friends about how we should get to leave early because another plane had been hijacked and our school was the next target. Some people react to grief and intense emotional situations with humor and making a joke out of something that is actually quite serious, but I'm not even going to pretend we were using some sort of psychological defense mechanism; that's giving way too much credit where it's definitely not due. I don't think I was the one actually making the joke, but I was certainly laughing along, yukking it up like the asshole 13 year old boy that I was.

This year is different, though. I mean, yeah, it's the 10th anniversary, which seems somehow significant and arbitrary at the same time. But I guess living in New Jersey and spending a fair amount of time in New York City has made everything feel, shall we say, closer to home. (Pun very seriously not intended.) I know, I know -- early 20s hipster-wannabe moves to NYC and all of a sudden he finally gets it, right? What could be more cliché? Well, to be fair, I didn't move to NYC. And still, even if it sounds a little trite, that doesn't make it any less real. Maybe I just wasn't really able to comprehend the magnitude of the attacks until I become familiar with the city. Hell, I had never even been to New York City until I was in college. But just being in the proximity of the city, just walking around downtown among the myriad nameless, just the sight of the hazy skyline seen through the window of a too-slow double-decker NJ Transit train, just breathing the thick, dirty air that hangs always overhead like some sort of soiled blanket -- I am able to catch a sideways glimpse of what 9/11 really means.

I am not deluded into thinking that I now know what it must have felt like to be a New Yorker or to have been directly impacted by the attacks. But even by being able to brush anonymously against the shoulders of the city, I am at least and at last able to perceive the incredible heaviness that sinks from the skyscrapers to the subway. It's a weight that I only understood in an abstract sense before -- I knew it existed, but it didn't press me down at all. I have to admit that I feel a sense of solidarity in finally waking up to the reality and importance of the events, in finally recognizing that 9/11 wasn't just another shitty news headline that happened far, far away from me. No one is or ever will be able to lift the weight of the attacks, but maybe with one more person it will get a little less heavy for everyone else -- maybe only microscopically, negligibly, undetectably less heavy, but less heavy nonetheless, and that's got to count for something.

I don't remember anything else from that day at school after lunch. I can't remember what happened in the afternoon, I can't remember going home, I can't remember talking to my parents or any of my other family members, I can't remember what I was thinking as I was going to bed that night. I think part of the reason I feel guilty for forgetting the minutiae of the day is because I know that too many people don't have the luxury of not remembering every minute of every hour of the day in excruciating detail. I wish there was something I could do, some way I could help, some relief I could provide to anyone who's suffered as a result of what happened 10 years ago. But there isn't. What's done is done; the pain might fade over time, but the scars are permanent, and all that's left to do at this point is try as hard as I can to remember.

1 comment:

  1. I liked this post, Daustin. I was there 10 years ago, and largely affected by the events of 9/11. The biggest after-effect being that my school had to be relocated for about 3 months following the attacks because it was so close to ground zero that everyone was worried about pollution and deemed the building unsafe to re-enter. I remember the day really well, and I remember really struggling to understand why it was all happening, and who would want to do something like that. Looking back it feels like 13 should have been old enough to get all of that. Maybe it was the shock of it all, but even as I walked home that day with my parents and several other people from the downtown area, the second tower collapsing behind us, I could not really grasp the reality of the situation. I think the 10 year anniversary was different for me because from a distance, I can actually comprehend the events of 9/11 and acknowledge their importance.
    I liked reading your memories of the day, and in the midst of all the media surrounding the 9/11 anniversary, your post helped me to reflect on what the anniversary of 9/11 means to me. Thanks for writing.