It’s September 11, 2001, and today is a big day. Not only am I finally in fifth grade, but, for the first time ever, I’ve walked all by myself to PS 234.
We are waiting in a double-line outside the classroom when we hear it: a big boom. A woman runs out of the stairwell, telling us that a plane has just flown through the Twin Towers.
Jacob and I turn to one another in excitement. That’s awesome! I imagine a plane zooming between the buildings that tower above us, just three blocks away. But the adults around us aren’t happy. They’re scared. In the classroom, looking through the big, south-facing window, I suddenly understand why: there’s a huge hole in one of skyscrapers. Smoke pours from the hole where the tail of the plane sticks out. A flaming cloud is rising above the World Trade Center.
Now, we’re all afraid.
We sit on the rug. Our teacher, Shirley, tells us everything will be fine. Out the window I can see things falling from the floors above the hole in the tower. Those things are people jumping from the tower, and they are going to die. The PA comes on and tells teachers to draw the blinds down on the south side windows facing the towers, and Shirley does. I can see she is trying not to cry at the same time as she tries to calm us down. The PA is still talking, but we don’t hear it.
The class shrinks, as parents arrive to pick up my friends. My dad comes to take me home, saying we’ll wait there, but I don’t like the idea. Our house is still only a few blocks away. I tell my Dad that the tower is going to fall. He keeps assuring me we’ll be fine. I tell him again and again that the tower is going to fall. I tell him we have to get away from here. The tower is going to fall.
My dad finally agrees not to go home, and we get on the subway to go to my mom’s office. It’s hot and, in the packed train car, everyone is sweating. Crushed by the weight of the adults around me, I feel like I can’t breathe. Suddenly the train car comes to a stop, and the lights go dark. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to get out. But the car starts again.
In my mom’s office, people are crowded around the TV. When my mom hugs me, she says that another plane hit the second tower. That dark, scary moment in the subway marked the first tower’s collapse. I want her to tell me that everything’s going to be all right, but she just keeps saying, “I hope it’s not the Arabs.”
When we return to our home a week and a half later, after living with friends in Greenwich Village and on Long Island, we have to show identification to enter our own neighborhood. Just a few blocks to the south, dust still coats the streets.
Our pride in our Arab heritage has not changed, but my mother fears what other people might assume. Among the first things we do after we get home is to remove the Lebanese flag from my bedroom window and the sign from our door, which holds a familiar Arabic phrase: “Ahlan wa Sahlan.” Welcome.