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I Remember The Grownups Handling September 11th Poorly

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When September 11th happened, I was a kid.

I was 14 and going to my second day of high school in Los Angeles, where I grew up. I remember my father coming to get me in the bathroom to tell me about the first plane hitting. Forcing my contact lenses into my eyes, I vaguely remembered the two twin towers as I had seen them a few years ago when I was 11. My father had pointed them out to me on a trip we took together and even tried to coax me to go up to the top with him. I declined because I’m terrified of heights, among other things, and when he told me about the plane hitting, I registered the building faintly as I had seen it as an even younger child.

I didn’t at all absorb the gravity of that first plane, but unlike many Americans it was for different reasons.

I’ll always remember that car ride to school because of the all voices on the radio stations. My father, always able to intuit events and circumstances well, flipped the dial to every station to understand what was happening. I remember all the grownups sounding panicked, reading statements on air with hesitant tones, not really conveying the details with any certainty.

I was still more or less consumed with myself and my own second day of high school, but that tone — that sound of adults interpreting a disaster with doubt — frightened me. Children don’t hear that type of uncertainty coming from adults too often, as most kids in an emergency instinctively look to grownups to express conviction in a crisis, or at least the surety that everything will resolve itself. But I distinctly remember not getting that sense from the grownup voices on the radio or my own parent who continued to search the airwaves in search of something.

By the time I got to school, the second plane had already hit dispelling any notion that this was an accident. My new high school, a place that I still considered quit foreign, instituted a media lock down in reaction to the attacks. Not knowing what to say about the disaster in New York and who was responsible, the school demanded that all televisions and radios remain off for the duration of the day — an announcement in homeroom that seemed to perplex both students and faculty.

My very forthcoming English teacher, a woman who I was already beginning to like, promptly had a television reeled in grumbling about how the policy was “ridiculous,” and together we watched the news coverage.  That was were I first saw the footage of the towers falling in their entirety, the smoke and the dust and the collapse playing on loop for months to follow.

But retrospectively, my biggest take away from experiencing September 11th as a child was how scattered all the grownups seemed. At that point in my very young life, I had never seen so many adults in such complete disarray — with such pronounced disparity in their decisions, their capabilities, and their reactions. Looking back, I don’t think it was wise of my high school to ban media for the entire day but as an adult, I can understand why. They didn’t know what to say to us about the attacks, nor were they prepared to answer the myriad questions we would inevitably have about why this had happened and what was going to happen next. The administration’s way to avoid stepping on the toes of parents was simply to not discuss the attacks at all, which meant not having footage or news reports accessible.

One of the summers I came home from college, I was having dinner with my family and the September 11th attacks came up. When I reiterated my account of the ordeal, all of which I’ve just shared with you, my father looked at me and paused for a bit after I concluded. He said that he had always regretted dropping me off at school that day. He said that if he had it to do over, he would have kept me home.

(photo: nytimes.com)

4 Comments

  1. Abigail

    September 11, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    I am a bit conflicted about your opinion that the adults handled it poorly. On the one hand, I remember feeling the same way, which is that nobody knew what was going on, how much it would impact us, or what to say about it. However, I also realized, even then, that it was as simple as that: nobody knew what to do or say about it. People were in shock. I don’t think that anyone could have done anything differently than they did. Shock is shock, as simple as that.

  2. Becca (yes, another one)

    September 12, 2011 at 9:56 am

    I agree with you 1000% on this. I too had just started high school (except that in Florida, school started in early August). Unfortunately, I had never heard of the Twin Towers/World Trade Center before.. except, as it turns out, in that episode of The Simpsons where Homer’s car has a boot in between the towers. I was in school when they were hit; I had no idea what to think and absolutely no grasp of the gravity of the situation. As a result, my clearest memory of that day is my second period geometry teacher telling us that we could watch the news, but not until we finished our busy work. Looking back, I’m still disappointed that I had such a short-sighted teacher.

  3. Jen

    September 12, 2011 at 10:44 am

    I was a senior in high school in the NYC suburbs. We had teachers and students with family in the towers and they STILL didn’t tell us what was going on.
    We were called into our auditorium and told that a small prop plane had just crashed into the WTC and they were assessing the damages, but no one should be worried. We weren’t until we all went to look up the story from our laptops and realized our internet connection had been cut. Luckily our dean allowed us to watch the news from the tv in her office, but it was so frustrating not being able to access any information when so many of us knew people in and around the WTC site.
    The one bright spot is that from what I later found out, it did lead to a larger conversation in my school (and I assume many others) about how to deal with those sorts of emergencies in a way that keeps students calm without keeping them totally in the dark.

  4. Pingback: Do You Really Want To Relive 9/11 From A Child’s Perspective On Christmas Day? | Mommyish

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