I have a picture of the Twin Towers – they stand tall and strong in the background – behind a group of frolicking high schoolers headed for the Statue of Liberty on the ferry out of
New Jersey. I looked frantically for that picture last night to no avail. I can still see the faces of my students though, BJ’s thousand watt smile, Kim, Thea, Byron, Jessica, Tiffany, Kristy, Nikki, and Katie all in adolescent poses of deep friendship. There were more but these faces found the camera at every turn. It is what I see when I close my eyes. And I could be wrong, relying like most, on the sovereignty of memory. I could be thinking of the picture we took on the eighty-third floor of the Empire State Building – different year but some of the same smiles and definitely the same Twin Towers in the background. I will always remember these pictures and yet over time I know these memories will fight a losing battle with the vision I beheld Tuesday, September 11th. Shocked, I watched the south tower as it belched smoke and flame. I saw the second plane bank and then plunge out of sight into the tower behind, propelling the fireball out beyond the south tower. I knew then that this plane was not coming in to drop flame retardant on the first tower – as I first thought. My heart raced. I held my head.
Only later did I curse technology. Oh to return to the world of word-of-mouth transmission. The time when one hovered around the newspaper or radio, listening to the newscast as it was filtered through the minds and hearts of stoic announcers. I thought of Cronkites’ voice coming over the all-com speaker in my junior high library and how it cracked and caught on the words that our president, John F. Kennedy was dead. That was a time when we were allowed space to form our own mental pictures of catastrophe – however tragic. It is different now.
Even as I write this I shake my head. I had a student write in her English essay, “Change is inevitable…” At fifteen she knows this. And here I am, half a century in age and barely able to remember when a postage stamp was two cents and the closest war was the ‘gas war’ happening over on the boulevard. I’ve missed something about change. Maybe it is the sameness of my days; the only changes are the ones I make.
Now my days are changed. An unseen hand has written A tragic script complete with murderous planes. How does one teach this? I don’t want to gather my son and the sons and daughters of others around me and have to explain hatred and intolerance. I fear it is completely beyond my ability. And yet I must.
I left school on that Tuesday with nowhere to go. There was nothing at home but lure of television news so I stopped and watched my son’s soccer practice. I read the local newspaper, the last one printed before the attack. I could believe, for a few minutes anyway, that the news of the day was light. Periodically, I’d look up at the boys and girls of various ethnic backgrounds on the soccer field in the bright sunshine. The day was exquisite, with the green hillsides only hinting at the golden leaves to come. On the broad expanse of lawn I witnessed young people in innocent athletics giving high fives to friends and competitors alike. I could have stayed there forever, a frozen tableau of perfection – no hatred, no intolerance, no headlines of alarm.
I was asked about our annual New York City trip by a student who assumed we wouldn’t go. I was resolute in my response. “We will go. That’s one thing that will not change,” I told her. But change is inevitable. A fifteen-year-old told me this. And she was right. The New York City trip did happen that spring. Phantom of the Opera enthralled my forty-five students, most from the hinterlands of rural western New York. On the subway to South Street Seaport, I decide not to make the trek to the hole in the ground that changes forever they way I view human nature. Most of the young people go with another chaperone. A few students stay with me and the vendors of cheap memorabilia. I sigh with relief. I am not ready.
Our chartered bus is faithful to our departure time and, after a last minute buying flourish of knockoff glasses and watches, we depart. I count heads then relax amid the excited chatter of adolescence. Even as darkness descends I sense we are on THAT parkway. My senses are validated by the silence that befalls the group. The bus slows to a crawl – not for traffic but for the view of the remains of the Twin Towers – the hole that has swallowed my city memories. I thought if I didn’t look – maybe things would become unchanged.
I looked. Foolish pretzel logic – to think we could achieve some type of retro-sameness. Like the skyline of lower Manhattan, we are all forever changed.