I know exactly where I was when al-Qaeda terrorists
attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
It is a permanent marker in my life. Older American
generations have the Kennedy assassination. Other nationalities have their own
publicly shared historic moments. Families and individuals have personal
events. Some people remember the moment they heard that Michael Jackson had
For me, Sept. 11 was personal: I was in New York City
when the World Trade Center Towers came toppling down and, for an
excruciatingly long time, I didn’t know if my brother and his wife were still
* * *
It used to be that everyone I knew had a memory of Sept.
11. It was topic of conversation that would often come up during the five years
I lived in New York. Then, when I moved to Brno 13 years ago, even adult English-language
students would tell me their own personal stories. Now, 18 years later, less
people have visceral memories of that day.
Students in my high school English classes, for example,
are largely uninformed. It happened around when they were born, or earlier. The
events of Sept. 11, 2001 are simply a few paragraphs in a book (I mean, on
Wikipedia). I understand: for me the rough equivalent is the massacre of 11
Israeli Olympic team members during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich; I was
born that week and I appreciate the difference between living memory and second-hand
This is why, every year, I make sure to address Sept. 11
in my classes. It is tricky because the anniversary comes right around the first
or second lesson of my once-a-week classes. It is a heavy topic with which to
start a school year. I generally ask what the students know about it, guide the
conversation and correct misinformation and then move on to some lighter topic
I make sure to come back Sept. 11 later in the year
during lessons that touch on U.S. History. I think it is important, not least
because one of the Graduation Exam speaking themes concerns U.S. History.
Frankly, I would also argue that the resultant events and
regulations post-9-11 will have much more influence on the lives of today’s
school children than the fact that George Washington was the first U.S. President
and the Civil War led to the abolishment of chattel slavery. The Sept. 11
attacks have changed geo-politics in such a way that will significantly affect
the coming generations.
So, again this year, in a classroom of the future leaders
of the world who have only a vague idea of the violent and symbolic attack on
the United States and the Western world, I will explain how al-Qaeda terrorists
hijacked four passenger planes filled with enough jet fuel for a cross-country
flight, and killed 2,996 people in and around the World Trade Center in New
York City, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and in an airplane that
crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
* * *
I was in my cousin’s apartment in the Chelsea
neighborhood of the Manhattan borough of New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. My
cousin had left for work. My mother was in the shower; she was to fly back home
to Washington State on an early-afternoon flight. I was watching a morning news
The commentator cut to an image of one of the World Trade
Center buildings. I recognized it immediately. Not only were the Twin Towers
landmarks of southern Manhattan, but it was where my mother and I had purchased
half-priced tickets for the musical “Rent” the day before, less than 20 hours
One of the towers had smoke billowing out of one side.
The commentator, live on air, was trying to figure out what was happening.
Then, a blip cut across the screen. It was just a second, but it was clearly
the shape of a plane. The commentator was slow to realize what the national
audience had just glimpsed. Soon thereafter, it was revealed that both of the towers
were, in fact, hit by hijacked jet liners. Then we found out about the
That is when my mother began hyperventilating. Her face was bright red. She struggled for breath, but she also couldn’t stop pacing back and forth in the tiny apartment with her mind reeling through catastrophic scenarios. I feared that she would have a heart attack.
That morning, my brother and his wife were flying back to
the West Coast from Washington D.C. They were to have taken off at about the
same time as the hijacked planes had. We didn’t have any way to contact them.
We didn’t know if they were still en route or if they
were among the dead in the World Trade Center or in the Pentagon.
* * *
About six hours later, our family crisis was over. My
brother and his wife had flown safely from an unaffected airport and their plane
had been forced to land in Buffalo, N.Y. The skies over the United States were
closed to airline traffic so they were stuck in Buffalo for a few days. My
mother was stuck in New York City for another week.
My family was lucky. So many others were not.
When I talk about Sept. 11, 2001 this year with my students, I know that it is no longer a current event. It is now a history lesson.
I hope that this column will provide thought-provoking observations of local life that will be interesting for a Saturday-morning read. If you have any suggestions or comments, please pass them along to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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