Up until then, evil to a 5th grader meant a teacher assigning homework on a Friday. But that day and the days that followed changed me. It is not often that people can pinpoint the exact time in their life that they changed, but for me this was one of the most pivotal points in my life.
As a girl in Texas who had never been to New York, I obviously did not feel the full impact of 9/11 as so many others did on that day. I did not know anyone in the towers, or the pentagon, or on the flights. I did not even know what the World Trade Center was. But as a shy introverted little 5th grader, all I did was observe. EVERYONE. I have distinct memories from that day, as does everyone else in America. I remember exactly where I was. I remember the teachers gathering every kiddo and bringing the whole school into the library. I remember sitting there, not knowing what was going on, hearing people whisper about two towers falling in New York City and about planes crashing into them. I remember looking at all the teachers in the library, it was the first time I ever saw my teachers look scared. Every teacher I had ever had, had been like a superhero to me. This great, wise, unbreakable person who knew everything. On that day, I learned they were ordinary people too.
I remember my mom picking me and my sister up after school. I ran to the car to tell her something, though I didn’t know exactly what, was going on in NYC. My little mind thought she probably hadn’t heard yet. I remember her smiling when we got in, but I had not seen this smile on my mom before. It was a smile to tell us everything was going to be ok with eyes that said she was not sure if everything would in fact be ok. I remember getting home and sitting on her bed, watching all the footage from that day. I asked my mom if she thought people were in those planes that crashed into the towers. This was the first time I ever saw my mom, who had always been my strength, my happy place, my Wonder Woman, not know what was going on or what to say.
This day was different. I knew that this day was important.
But for me, this was the day my little, beautiful world got darker. I had had nightmares before, but I had never seen fear in the daytime. Daytime was for happiness, laughter and smiles. This daytime was the first time I can ever remember it being dark during the day. People were crying about something they did not physically see. They were sad over a place they had never been and for people they had never met. That was how I knew this day was important. Because everyone I saw that day had their heart broken.
This day was the first day I learned the world was a lot bigger then me. It was the first time I remember our country fully embracing what I had learned being an American had meant in the history books. It was the first time I saw everyone of different faiths, skin color, gender and political views come together as nothing was different about them. The days that followed 9/11 were the days I saw our country rise together as the strongest community I had ever seen. It was the days that followed that I saw everyone, including the bullies at school, go out of their way to do nice things for a stranger. And it was the first time I saw random people be a good neighbor for no reason other than to be a good neighbor.
9/11 changed Americans in many different ways. But for me, this horrible day was the first time I ever saw darkness and fear completely cover my beautiful daylight. But the days that followed were the first time I ever saw an entire community live out compassion, empathy and kindness.
I had the privilege of living in New York last year and experiencing 9/11 among New Yorkers. For the 10 years prior to that, I had experienced this anniversary in Texas. And while every year we did something to remember those lost on this day, it was not until last year that I saw and felt the exact same thing my 5th grade self felt 11 years ago. A city that was once known for having some of the coldest people in the world, became the warmest city I had ever been in (and I’m from Texas, so that’s saying something). They went out of their way for a stranger, they came together as a community of one and oozed compassion, empathy and kindness.
I cry on this day every year. I cry for the families who lost loved ones, the city that lost more than part of their iconic skyline, the nation that I once considered unbreakable, who got hurt. I also always feel a deep, deep sadness that it takes a complete tragedy to bring a country together. And that we only come together as one on it’s anniversary. Maybe it’s just my innocent little 5th grade mind, but I always wonder how amazing our country could be if we lived each day with the same spirit as we did on the days that followed that horrible event 12 years ago.