For some reason, the 10th anniversary of September 11th has really affected me. I guess it’s because I’ve been repressing, to some degree, the actual event for the past ten years. It’s never been truly comprehensible, and I do agree that we as Americans have to move on and live our lives–not doing so would cripple us even more than the actual event has. But over the past few days I’ve really allowed myself to go back and think about what that day meant–I’m not an overly emotional person, but I feel like the wind is knocked out of me every time I remember what it was like to watch those news stories in seventh grade. We were all confused, we were all scared (but with this strange mixture of excitement–did this mean war? How would our country react?), and while we didn’t really know what the World Trade Center was, we could tell by our teachers’ shock that this was big.
I had a discussion about 9/11 with my class on Friday. It wasn’t too in-depth, and I didn’t get into the complexities of suicide missions and jihad with my 5th graders, but I told them the facts: a few people hijacked 4 airplanes and ran 2 of them into the WTC, 1 into the Pentagon, and another into a field, after passengers rose up and crashed the plane rather than see it destroy the White House. My students were confused about a lot of things, and particularly about why the hijackers crashed themselves along with everyone else. I simply confirmed that yes, they did know that they would die too, and they did not care. Maybe that conversation was inappropriate for 10 year olds, but I don’t think so. One of my students was born that day, and none of them can even imagine a pre-9/11 world: it’s always been with them.
What really got me the other day was reading an Esquire (of all things) article about a photograph called “Falling Man.” In this photograph, a man falling from one of the Towers seems suspended upside-down in air, and in that particular photographic frame he appears to be shooting down like an arrow–parallel to the tower’s window lines, almost casual with one knee cocked. In the article, the author moves back and forth between the broader implications of the attacks and the simple question of Who was that man? Who’s brother, father, lover was he? Who was waiting for him to come home? Subsequent frames, which reveal the truth of his tumbling, chaotic death-fall (like everyone else’s), reveal that he was wearing an orange undershirt. We know this because the wind consuming him took first his clothes, whipping off his white over-shirt to give us a glimpse of his personality, his off-beat undershirt color–surely there was someone in the city who would recognize his jaunty orange shirt.
Stories like this, which strip away the veneer of geopolitics and Wars on Terror and economic implications, plunge me into grief, even though I never knew this man with his (perhaps intentionally over-bright? Perhaps an effort to feel like one’s own man underneath a server’s uniform?) cheerful orange shirt. Then the grief that is focused on the tragedy of this one individual life, paradoxically, gives way to an overarching sense of loss for everyone else–still personal rather than analytical, but somehow sadder for its broad absurdity. This one man is a representative for everyone and everything else that was lost that day. So much was lost. It was such a beautiful morning, the kind of morning that has you boarding a plane and collecting your complimentary softdrink and looking out the window at the fluffy clouds and feeling lucky to be alive.
The falling man got up early that morning, way before the sun rose and revealed what a truly breathtaking, clear, early-autumn day it was, and prepared for work. He shook of his desire to stay in bed, warm and cozy, and trudged over to the sink. He took out his toothbrush and grudgingly brushed for a minute, like his dentist had insisted. He splashed water on his face, rolled on some deodorant, and walked over to his dresser. There, he opened his top drawer and thought about what to wear to work–he had to wear his white shirt, but there was no rule against wearing something more exciting under it. So he dressed himself, tied up his sneakers for the walk to the subway, and greeted the dawn as he rode the train into the city. And he deserved so much better than what came after him when he entered the Tower that morning, smile on his face, tired but willing to work hard on a Tuesday.
9/11 was the tragedy of our lifetime, as well as many individual lifetimes, and for some reason that makes me feel even better about teaching. It makes me feel patriotic, like there are things I must transfer to the next generation–when I put a picture of the in-tact Twin Towers on my Promethean board and began to talk, I felt a little bit victorious. Ten years later, here I was, doing my small part to make sure the next generation at least knew. They might not understand it yet, but at least they know.
And finally, I am so glad that we are on the path to rebuilding. New York City has lost its icons, and we need to put them back where they belong. I would actually prefer the new buildings to be replicas of the old, but I understand why some would disagree. In any case, rebuilding must happen–our country needs that gaping wound to get its towers back.
The NYT just published an interactive piece about the towers’ significance, and Philippe Petit, who tight-roped across the towers years ago, reminds us why the towers themselves matter so much: “What I like to remember about the physical presence of the Twin Towers is that they pierced the skyline of New York City so brilliantly, so arrogantly, so beautifully, that first they serve as a beacon…the other is that from New Jersey, from an airplane, from a boat, they were so tall, they were a constant reminder to believe in humanity, to believe in imagination, to believe in miracles and fairy tales and myths and legends, and they are legends. For me those towers are still planted solidly in the landscape of New York in my heart.”