I had been at the job for a week, but it felt like months. I was sweating in front of the classroom, trying to talk about a young adult novel I can’t remember, though I know it had something to do with the Revolutionary War. Years before, this school outside of Philadelphia was converted from a nursing home into a place where young people roamed, and this room, like the rest of them, was stuffy and narrow. I was 21, fresh from college, anxious and excited, breathless, overwhelmed.
The director of the middle school knocked on the door to tell the girls that something tragic had happened in New York City and asked if they had any family there, whether they needed to make a phone call. The kids looked to each other with big eyes, and some of them made their way into the office down the hall. I had no idea how to carry out my script for the rest of the day. Did the themes from summer reading matter? Through lunch and into the afternoon, students and teachers sat in darkened classrooms and watched fuzzy television screens show the footage of one tower collapsing, then two. The history teacher said the word “terrorist,” and I had no idea what he was talking about.
My life in college had been pretty insular. I cared about social issues and my studies, but I knew little about politics or the latest drama that unfolded on the nightly news. The height of my political involvement was when I drove to New Jersey, where I was registered, to proudly pull the lever for Al Gore in the presidential election the year before. At the time, I did not feel the self-righteous anger that caused people to scan newspapers and internet sights or watch CNN throughout the day. My personal journey of writing and reading and graduating seemed very separate from all of that.
After school that day, I went to my grandmother’s house, the place I was going to stay for one or two nights a week so I didn’t have to commute home to New Jersey. The house was empty; my grandparents left that afternoon to be with my great aunt, whose son was just rescued from the south tower. Now, that building was a pile of rubble burning in the streets of New York City.
I talked to my mother on the phone, who wondered why I didn’t want to be home on a day of such tragedy, but the safest place I could imagine was my grandparents’ house, where blankets stretched on the couches and licorice bags peaked open in the cabinet. Besides, I was just biding my time until November, when I could move into the apartment I would share with my best friend. For dinner, I went to a diner with my boyfriend, where we saw a news crew interviewing waitresses about the day’s events. Everyone was abuzz. Nothing felt the same as the day before.
A lot happened in the next ten years, my twenties. I got engaged, then married, started and finished graduate school and bought a house, had one baby, then another. I left my first job and started teaching at public school, then community college. My husband and I canvassed for John Kerry, then Barack Obama, listened and read stories of fear, of oil, of rapture, of war. But on the night of September 11 in 2001, I had turned on the TV to see a man standing in a desert, his face full of dark hair, his eyes shadowy and emotionless. The place I saw had probably never before entered my consciousness, yet I would begin to see it on the covers of newspapers, magazines and books, on my internet home page and the passing flicker of television screens. I shut the TV off, slept scared and alone in my grandmother’s bed.
At the end of school that day, after most everyone had seen the images of collapse and fire, the administration called an assembly. We filed in quietly, students taking their place on the bleachers, teachers standing with arms crossed, rocking from one foot to the other. In my six years teaching at that Catholic school, where I ended up dodging first Friday mass and complaining of outdated practices, it was in that first week, feeling the echo of tragedy, that I held a yellow piece of paper with words someone had gathered and photocopied, and recited them, and sang them, and realized why we prayed.