A Semicolon Between Fear and Hope: Remembering 9/11

On September 11, 2001, my third grade computer class was just beginning to learn the basics of typing. Little finger on the “A.” Next, the “S,” reaching across the board for the tiny pointer finger bump of the “F”, skip that “G” and “H,” thumbs on the space bar, and begin again on the “J.” I remember being intensely concentrated, forcing my eyes not to deceive my hands and cheat by looking down from my screen, though of course I couldn’t help but take peeks. At the zenith of concentration, typing whatever combination of strings of letters one could make with just seven characters and a semicolon, the phone began to ring. And it continued to ring, incessantly, and one by one children began leaving the room. Now, to an eight-year-old, the mere act of being picked up from school early is like getting that Barbie Jeep AND the Lisa Frank folder set for your birthday. But it seemed strange that almost everyone would be getting picked up early. Teachers were crying, and no one really seemed to care what we were doing anymore. I was getting antsy. My only concern was, why hadn’t I been picked up yet? If everyone else got to leave early, you best believe I wanted to be there with them. 

After what I’m sure felt like ages, but was likely only another ten minutes, my aunt picked my then five-year-old sister and me up. I was surprised and already had a note of panic in my voice when asking where my parents were and why we were getting picked up. My parents, both teachers in Brooklyn, were stuck there and something bad had happened, my aunt told us, without going too much into detail. 

When we got home, I remember wanting to play outside and feeling that the weather was perfect—it was just the beginning of sweet summer slipping away and the entire neighborhood was on their lawns and porches. It felt like a block party until the black clouds began rolling in.  In Staten Island, just ten miles away from where the Twin Towers stood hours earlier, the sky above my house dauntingly rolled in, smoky wisps piercing the blue sky. You couldn’t help but watch them engulf the puffy clouds and sunshine until the sky turned an eerie gray. 

My parents finally made it home and soon began the week of watching the news, trying to make sense of what had happened. The TV stations were a never-ending loop of Tower footage, death tolls, flags raised in memory and pride, and official nationwide addresses. School didn’t feel normal for weeks, as our teachers tearfully tried to explain how such a tragedy could happen. It was the first scratch on our juvenile rose-colored glasses, when we began to realize that the world is not always good and pure, and that this wicked thing had happened in our small, unspoiled bubble. We saw classmates lose their parents, friends lose aunts and uncles, teachers lose friends. And even if you were personally lucky enough to not have lost someone dear to you, we all felt the loss and mourned together. 

I am incredibly lucky that no one I love was hurt that day. I am in awe that today there are kids in high school who were not yet born; I can’t imagine learning about 9/11 in a history textbook and feeling so far removed—the feeling that yes, this happened, but it’s just another day in history. What should have been another ordinary Tuesday became a day that every child in our nation (and many others) learn about because it lives in infamy. Maybe you’re walking to work, staring at the World Trade Center, and remembering what used to be there. Maybe you have family still dealing with the aftermath of 9/11. Maybe you’re admiring the New York City skyline, but you know the iconic image was forever altered fifteen years ago. 

I can’t help but think back to the last key we learned that day in computer class: the semicolon. As a mark that signifies that something could have ended, but chose not to, it seems fitting that this is an image that stands out. It reminds me that we have grown, and come back stronger, rather than accepted defeat and considered that day irredeemable. I hope that this day, especially on the fifteenth anniversary, is not a reminder of the hatred and pain that we are capable of, but rather a reminder of the resiliency and strength and grace and courage that we all have. I look back on how much this city has thrived since and I’m reminded of the infinite patience and support people can give to one another. I’m reminded that while hate was the causing factor of that day, and that pain will always remain, love has kept this city, my city, standing taller than ever.

Feature photo via Life of Pix