I had gone to class that morning in ripped jeans…a no-no at my all girls boarding school. The Dean of Students, “Miss T” had pulled me aside after our morning assembly and quietly told me I’d need to go change my clothes. I mumbled “Yes, Miss T,” and ran off to class. When I got to class I remembered what Miss T had said, and fearing the inevitable demerits, I asked my teacher if I could run back to my room in the dorm and change. She gave me permission and I rushed out.
I was 16 years old. Just a couple weeks into my senior year of high school. My young life had already had it’s fair share of ups and downs, and little did I know as I rushed down the hallway to my room that I was about to encounter yet another “down”.
I was walking past a TV lounge when suddenly my Headmaster, Dr. Burkette of all people, popped his head out to see who was in the hall. “Lydia, you should come in and watch this, it’s important.”
I was completely confused, but figured what the headmaster said trumped Miss T’s orders to change, and whatever my teacher might say when I got back to class late. So I went in and sat down. On the screen was New York City, the first building already ensconced in billowing clouds of dark smoke. It was not completely certain what had just happened, but Dr. Burkette told me a plane had gone off course and ran into the building. A horrible tragedy.
Within seconds another plane entered the screen and amidst screams from camera crew and surrounding onlookers, the plane crashed into the other tower of the World Trade Center. It was not just a horrible tragedy anymore. It was an attack, and we had just witnessed it live on television.
The rest of that morning is a bit hazy in my memory, the years have caused parts of it to fade. All the more reason to write down what I remember now.
It was not long after that I received a phone call from my mother. I figured she was calling to talk about what happened in New York and Washington, D.C., but she was calling to give me the news my great-grandmother, whom we called Baw Baw, had died. A chill went through my heart to think Baw Baw had died at the age of 90 at the exact same time that thousands of others were dying in the attacks. For years after we talked about how the old Southern woman must have been astounded on her ascent to Heaven, being accompanied by so many others. Her favorite phrase, ” ‘ell Lawwwwwd!” she must have said at the sight.
That September day was beautiful. The weather was a perfect late summer mix of warmth with a slight breeze. The skies were never bluer in North Carolina.
The more we learned throughout the day about what had happened, the more fearful we all became. My school was in a relatively big city by North Carolina standards, and we all wondered if school would be dismissed, if we’d need to be evacuated. Suddenly, I wanted home.
The tears ran freely that day. A school full of 200 girls and we were all a mess. I felt the confusion of grief for my Baw Baw, for the lives I saw leaping from the smoldering Twin Towers, the gaping hole in the Pentagon, the plane crashed in Pennsylvania.
I remember walking outside to go to the building where Glee Club practice was held. There was an eerie calm and quiet in the cloudless skies. All planes had been grounded and the normal sight of aircraft flying over our city was absent.
My friends and I whispered our feelings to each other throughout the day. We wondered what this day meant, what it would mean in the future. I even remember wondering outloud what it would mean 10 years in the future. In my naivete I recall saying “It’ll probably just be a good story for a movie by then”. Ten years seemed like such a long ways in the distance. How silly I was.
Late in the afternoon on September 11, 2001, I had an appointment to get my Senior portrait taken. The tears were still hard to contain, so I showered and remade my face, found a set of pearls to wear around my neck for the photograph. I went down to the room where the photographer was set up. My image on that fateful day was captured, and to this day it’s kind of strange to look at it and remember.
My face is a picture of innocence on a day where we as Americans had lost our collective innocence. There was no salvation in being American. We were just as vulnerable as the rest of the world.
The years following 9/11/01 would prove that the spirit of courage and humanity and love, that we heard stories of from all the sites of tragedy, would persist. They also proved that the opposite side of the human spirit, the dark side of vengeance, was just as powerful; and as one New York Times article put it today, we “fell in love with death” through depression, despair, violence, and aggression.
Thousands of lives were lost that day, and many thousands more on all fronts of the war have been lost in the decade since. At 16 I had my eyes ripped open to the realities of a world I did not understand, and if I’m honest, I still don’t understand at 26.
One thing I do know, is I won’t ever forget. I will always feel a sense of dread and sadness when I think of watching those towers collapse, and when I think of the individual stories of human bravery my heart and eyes will swell with tears. I will also never forget the lessons we must learn from the past decade: fear and hatred will take us nowhere. As my priest said this morning about the Gospel passage on forgiveness: when you can’t forgive, you give the other person too much power to live inside your head and determine your actions. You only end up hurting yourself, while the other person has achieved even more of a victory. It is okay sometimes to forgive without forgetting.
I have hope in my heart that for many people this day will come to mean forgiveness and love, instead of only anger and despair. The tears will always remain, but I sincerely pray that what man meant for evil, God will turn to good.