On Sept. 18, 2001, in response to a quick fifth-grade assignment, I wrote: “I think America might be overreacting a little to the attacks. Canceling Little League games, unbelievable! And just because Bush called a day of prayer. He stopped us in the middle of Math! I understand that thousands of people died, but still, I don’t know. I think it has to do with the Golden Rule. But that is kind of proving the other point: If they attack us, we should attack them.”
On 9/11, the United States was thrust into an era of fear, distrust and simultaneous xenophobia and political correctness. We allowed the atmosphere of America to change. We allowed ourselves to slip into patterns of economic downturn, threatened liberties and an attitude that highlighted our new vulnerability rather than overcoming it. Maybe we were so shocked, scared and burdened with empathy for those who suffered that we forged a collective tragic narrative. Misery is hard to deal with, but it’s easier than utter confusion.
Here’s my 9/11 story: Sept. 11, 2001 was picture day at Georgetown Day School. My fifth-grade class had just returned to our homeroom after being photographed and was eating a snack, hanging around, joking with Mahtab, our teacher, when Mahtab’s phone rang. Her phone never rang. For some reason, she answered it. Someone might have bombed the World Trade Center, she told us. She didn’t know anything else.
Within minutes, the entire fifth grade was in the gym, waiting. The teachers played basketball with us, trying to distract us, trying to avoid answering our questions, which were the same as theirs. Mahtab was wearing shoes that were definitely not allowed in the gym, I noticed. They marked up the floor, and, usually, you got yelled at for breaking that rule. That day, no one said anything.
Soon, we knew it wasn’t a bomb. We also knew it wasn’t just New York; we were under attack, too. Right across the river in Virginia, about three miles from my school, the Pentagon had been hit. The Capitol or White House could be next.
Mothers flooded the school to take their kids to sit in traffic together for hours before reaching home. I refused to leave school. I guess I liked being at school, and I resented the disruption, and I didn’t want to venture out into the world where things were chaotic. Inside, in a comfortable place, I could feel safe.
Later, at home, I watched a plane fly into a building over and over again. I learned Osama bin Laden’s name, though I didn’t quite get who he was. My father, a reporter, wasn’t around much for the next couple of days.
There was no school the next day, and the only thing I can remember is walking to get ice cream with my mom as if it were summer again.
All told, mine isn’t a sad story. I was lucky. But it’s a story I’ll tell for the rest of my life.
In the next week, we’ll read a lot about 9/11 memorials, ceremonies, art exhibits, concerts, books and every possible form of human expression. Those matter. The artists behind them are feeling out the legacy of Sept. 11. They’re charting new territory, beginning the shift from remembering a recent event to commemorating a historical one.
But these are collective memorials, designed to communicate to Americans at large. We’ll make our individual stories sound important even when they’re really not about much of anything at all, because that’s what feels right. An event that hurt our country should have hurt us as individuals, too, right? So I tell my 9/11 story and remember that day’s fear and panic along with everyone else.
Now, while the memory is still so fresh it feels like last year, we should stop trying to force 9/11 stories into a mold they don’t necessarily fit. We should be entirely honest while we still can. For some of us, that means admitting that we were not personally hurt. For others, that means confronting the depths of that day’s loss, putting into words — if not neatly packaged stories — exactly what happened.
For all of us, it means listening to the stories of those who were actually there. It means recalling that day, not interpreting it. It means figuring out what justice is before we go doling it out. It means being American, and proudly so, as we have been for centuries. It means playing Little League games when they’re scheduled, because the narrative of regular life — not the painted narrative of tragedy — tells us who we are, how we react to attack, and how we band together as Americans.
Julia Fisher is a junior in Berkeley College.