Comprehending A Tragedy

We were released from the rest of classes.

In the middle of Mr. Robb’s science class, the principal’s robotic voice echoed: “All students from McGuire Air Force Base are to be released immediately to the buses.”

I don’t know if the teachers knew what happened in the state just above ours.

There was a tiny, black television in the corner of the room, above trays of cloudy beakers and blackened Bunsen burners.

Mr. Robb never turned it on—I don’t think a sane teacher would turn on the news in front of a bunch of middle school kids.

The halls felt joyous; at least that’s how my memory tinges the screech of sneakers, papers floating on the floor and our silly chatter.

How else should twelve and thirteen-year-olds act, spared the boredom of another normal day of school?

Walking down a glass-paneled hall, the mid-morning light glowed, the color of ash or light on fresh snow.

Rumors sprouted immediately. A madman on the loose, the principal felt like being nice and giving us a day off, a smelly, flood from the boys’ bathroom, and something bad happening to buildings I didn’t know about. My money was on the boys’ bathroom flooding.

The bus ride could have been silent, probably loud as usual: backseat Pokémon card deals and nervous giggles.

The road was empty, silent as sleep and gray as a river. It was still early in the morning, past rush hour but before lunch. We were a bus of children who woke to the good times of a new millennium: Netscape Navigator, autumn’s earthy scent and playing tag until the streetlights glared down on us like our parents.

My favorite song was Alicia Keys’s “Fallin’.” I couldn’t wait to get home and listen to it over and over again.

Yet, driving past stretches of green in the nowhere between N.

Burlington Middle School and McGuire AFB, marked by horses at rest, bales of hay and a small, weathered house—signs I always saw on the ride home in the afternoon—were imperceptibly changed, heavier, clearer almost by a light I wasn’t accustomed to seeing.

The base was locking down (some kind of DEFCON). The normally nonchalant guards who waved vehicles through for the three years I lived in New Jersey were erect, shouldering their weapons and rushing us through the checkpoint to military housing.

My mom was lying on the couch watching CNN. My little brother wasn’t home yet. By then, both towers were smoldering wrecks and the first had already fallen. I know I asked her what was going on, but I don’t even remember her answer, or the rest the year.

I wasn’t traumatized. I was only twelve so I don’t recall much of what happened in 2001. Aaliyah died two days before my birthday, and I got her CD and a radio for my birthday that August.

In the eight years following 9/11, I seem to lament the tragedy even more. I was a child blessed with self-absorption and ignorance. I hadn’t heard of the Towers; I’d never been to NYC; I was touched by only a surface sadness because everyone else seemed sad.

I didn’t comprehend what happened.

Reports from survivors of the Towers often say when the planes hit there was a rush of air, a swift silence and then the shaking. That’s how my twelve-year-old brain must have felt at the time, a whoosh of information.

Muslim. Terrorist. George W. Bush. Afghanistan. Revenge. Osama Bin Laden. War. Patriotism.

There was talk of war and anthrax and more attacks. The world rallied with us. It was us against them.

In the years since, I find myself reflecting on 9/11 with a sense of greater sorrow. I comprehend with a wider scope than I could the year before.

I lament the sprawling human tragedy in the wake of the Towers; not just those who died in the attacks but the soldiers lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Iraqis and Afghanis whose lives were unsettled by war, the families of deployed men and women, Arabs around the world who become synonymous with extremism, and nations around the world who have lost men and women to succeeding terrorist attacks.

I look back to that little black boy sitting in his room listening to Alicia Keys, his Playstation humming in the background, and think of the other kids in their rooms who just didn’t get it. How we are a generation under the shadow of the towers.

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