These essays were written by writers for New Voices Magazine, the national Jewish student magazine. For more essays on this theme, go to the New Voices website.
What started as a beautiful, sunny day in Rockville, Md. ended with images of darkness that will be etched in my mind for the rest of my life.
It was my second week in the fourth grade, and I was still trying to find my way around my school, which had been redesigned over the summer. An announcement came over the loudspeaker. I never actually heard what our headmaster said in the message, but within 15 minutes I was in the gym listening to him tell us the deeply upsetting news of what had just transpired in New York and in our own backyard, Washington D.C.
My first instinct was to cry, because I had family who lived in New York City, including a cousin not yet 8 months old. I later learned that my aunt had been working next to the Twin Towers and had escaped unharmed just as the second plane hit the South Tower. As my teachers tried to comfort me, I could not express to them what was wrong and why I was so hysterical. The lack of information really disturbed my fourth-grade mind.
The next thing I remember, I was in my house, glued to the television set and watching the worst terrorist attack on United States soil unfold. I saw the South Tower fall and then the North Tower shortly afterward. I saw the chaos that ensued just minutes from my house as people scrambled from the Pentagon and the district. As a fourth-grader, I would never have expected these events to stick with me, but I was glued to that television set by an incident that still haunts me to this day.
Things got worse before they got better at my school. We experienced constant paranoia about whether we would be targeted for attacks because of our size and proximity to Washington. We started having drills to prepare for bomb threats and for the possibility of being taken hostage.
I can’t believe it has been 10 years since those heinous and terrible attacks. I don’t remember much about life prior to them. I don’t remember airport security and I don’t remember not being at war. This is something that is truly terrifying to me. As much as I have memories from the first 9 1/2 years of my life, my life is defined by what unfolded from that day on.
Joshua Walfish was 9 in 2001 and a student at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md. He is now a sophomore at Northwestern University.
One by one, my classmates were disappearing. My Solomon Schechter Hebrew class had started off like any other, but things had quickly become eerie as the school secretary entered the classroom every few minutes to inform one of my peers that he or she was excused from class for the morning. No one had told us why they were being excused or what was happening — kids were just vanishing.
It took the administration hours to finally hold an assembly and explain the situation. By that point, rumors were circling like vultures. They sat us all in the gymnasium and showed us footage from the news. They explained that we didn’t know anything yet about who was behind this awful event or how many people had been victims. We sat in that gym for the remainder of the day, asking questions and understanding very little about how our world had just changed.
My classmates had been disappearing that morning because most parents felt that such a catastrophic event needed to be shared with family. They wanted to break the news lightly to their 10-year-olds and spend the day watching the coverage together. My father, an executive at American Airlines, was far too busy and stressed out for that. When I think of September 11, 2001, I think of sitting in that gymnasium until the end of the day and coming home to find my father looking different from the way he had ever looked before. I remember being told that for the next couple of weeks — or maybe months — daddy would be very busy and I needed to be extra good and supportive of him. I remember feeling as though the event was so distant and unrelated to my life and then coming home to find that those planes had crashed straight through my family.
Naomi Nason was 10 in 2001 and a student at the Solomon Schechter Academy of Dallas in Dallas, Texas. She is now a junior at Northwestern University.
David A.M. Wilensky
I was in a science class. I can’t recall the specific subject, but I remember the room clearly. No lights were on in the windowless room. Instead, light poured in from a large skylight in the middle of the ceiling. The school’s small fleet of television sets was deployed throughout the largest classrooms, including mine. A few other classes joined us to watch.
I’m 22 years old now, so my decade-old memories of watching the day’s events unfold at age 12 are unclear at best. I can’t be sure, but I think we watched the second plane hit live. This was half a lifetime ago — literally. I had just discovered Gil Scott-Heron’s famous “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” and I distinctly recall thinking that he should probably revise that statement.
As the day’s events unfolded like some perverse, made-for-TV movie in that classroom in Austin, Texas, some things seemed dangerously up in the air. Planes were unaccounted for and, far worse than that, the villain was unknown.
I’ve always had a hard time empathizing with far-flung news items. What I felt most strongly that day was indignation. My classmates were full of a brand of willful ignorance that seemed unusual to me at the time, but I can now see that it’s become part of the norm in America. I was one of only a few students in the room who had any idea of what the World Trade Center was and I had to explain it to my classmates repeatedly.
Pop culture in 2001 was still feeding off of the Cold War for its evildoers, so the general consensus among the more punditry-inclined students in the room was that the most likely culprits were China or Russia. Even if China or Russia wanted to attack us, they wouldn’t do it with hijacked passenger planes, I pointed out.
Emotionally, the legacy of 9/11 for me is one of anger and fatigue at the atmosphere of prideful ignorance and bombastic proclamations that we Americans created in response. Somewhere, probably the news, I heard someone say that we were letting the attackers win by reacting the way we had. I was 12, but that sounded about right to me. I repeated that idea at school, but no one was interested.
David A.M. Wilensky was 12 in 2001 and a student at the NYOS Charter School in Austin, Texas. He is now the editor of New Voices: National Jewish Student Magazine, and director of the Jewish Student Press Service, publisher of New Voices.
When those planes hit the Twin Towers back in 2001, I was in seventh grade and I didn’t know enough about the world to know that this shouldn’t be happening to us. And in some ways, I’ll never know, because I grew up in a world where terrorism is a possibility that has turned into a reality far too often.
I remember when I first realized that terrorism could affect me personally. One of my eighth-grade teachers was Israeli and she warned us, in her blunt Israeli way, “Now you have to be careful of everything you see. I always told my kids in Israel, ‘Don’t pick up anything on the side of the road, because it can be a bomb.’ Now that applies to you girls, too.” Her words were frightening, but her message even more so: No one is safe from this evil called mankind.
Living in a world where no one is trusted, where even carrying a water bottle onto a plane is suspect, may or may not have shaped me. It’s hard to know what would be in a different reality. But I can tell you that my elation the night of Osama bin Laden’s death was real. I wasn’t so much relieved — terrorism is not the creation of a single terrorist so much as the idea of many — as I was uplifted. We needed hope, and that night the American people got it.
My friends and I joined thousands of other euphoric New Yorkers and tourists at Ground Zero to celebrate the news. “Obama got Osama!” we chanted over and over until dawn. Terrorists around the world continue to plan the deaths of innocent civilians, but for one night the rest of the world was united in hope and optimism for the future.
My memories of September 11, 2001 aren’t the stuff of philosophical meditations. I was far too young to understand. But now is the time for the generation that grew up with September 11 to think about what happened that day and what it means. I know enough to recognize that not understanding September 11, or the human capacity for evil, is a universal predicament. I also know that we will never stop searching both for understanding and for the hope and faith necessary to ride out the dark times.
These are the times to remember; these are the times to reflect. And they are also the times in which we gather ourselves for what’s ahead, as we attempt to face the future with the same amount of hope we found in our elation over Osama’s demise.
Simi Lampert was 12 in 2001 and a student at Yeshivat Rambam in Baltimore, Md. She is now a senior at the Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University.