On Spending September 11th Abroad


There is something unsettling about spending 9/11 out of the US. It’s a discomfort that stems from the normalcy of the day. I got up, went to work, and taught my classes. No one asked where I was when the Towers fell. No one assumed that I don’t remember. I remember. I gave a test on colors and numbers and shapes. I explained the instructions a half-dozen times. No teacher in the next room showed footage of the the attacks. I ate lunch in the kitchen, where the teachers congregate. No one whispered their memories, hoping the children don’t overhear the horror in their voices. I planned lessons, graded assignments, and got ready to go home. I got in the van, and we drove away. No one mentioned the tragedy. All day, there were no lessons on the subject. I guess that’s my job now, if I choose to discuss horrific anniversaries alongside the forms of “to be” and vocabulary review. But how do you transfer a national tragedy into a foreign language lesson? And how young is too young to hear, to learn?

I was 8 when the Towers fell.

I was in the school library, and the principal carted out a TV to let the teachers know what was going on. As we kids checked out our books, the teachers shielded us from the screen, ushering us behind the TV cart. But not well enough. I saw a plane crash into a building. I didn’t understand it was real. Each year around this day, I turn this moment over and over in my mind. Teachers huddled around the TV, students staring at its back. Perhaps the teachers cried. I can’t remember that. It might have been too soon. They might have been in shock. My friends and I were confused and a bit scared.

I didn’t understand why Mom came and picked my sister and I up from school early. It wasn’t even lunchtime. Mom was crying. Grandma was waiting in the car. I knew it was bad, whatever it was. Mom never took us out of school early. I said goodbye to my friends as if I’d never see them again. I was terrified of what I could not understand.

I asked what was going on. Through tears, Mom said something which I remember as “Some bad men bombed our country.” She might have said something else. I can’t be sure. I’m pretty sure I asked “Why?” Eight years old is pretty young to be faced with the idea of terrorism.

We went home. I don’t remember much else. I knew I wanted Dad home. I think he stayed at work. I remember Mom wouldn’t let us watch TV. She had it on a news station. Of course, nearly everything was all news that day. My sister and I weren’t allowed in the room. The glimpses I got didn’t make sense entirely at the time. Years later, I saw some of the same clips at school, and I remembered. I understood. People jumping from windows–death by fire, by structural collapse, or by suicide. Buildings in flames. Rubble that held people dead and dying. I didn’t know that then. But I remember.

So today, when the biggest tragedies I encountered before getting on Facebook were kids not wanting to take a test or having to use an eraser they didn’t like, it felt bizarre. A world of minor tragedies, no mention of the major one. Not a hint of the shadow that hangs over a nation every year on this day. But as I sat in my classroom or ate my lunch or rode home, I remembered.  And I felt the weight of unspoken disaster.

I understand a bit better why we talk about it every year–not that I think we should stop. But we talk about 9/11 for reasons beyond honoring the lives lost or ensuring students know what happened. We speak because, fourteen years later, we are still in shock. We whisper as if half-afraid our words will recreate the events. But even then, we must speak. We speak until we understand. But some actions are inexplicable.


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