I took the weekend off from reading, watching, consuming news of any kind. It occurred to me as Sunday drew closer that it would simply be unbearable to do otherwise.
Part of it, of course, was knowing that — the state of American media being what it is — obscenely over-produced, over-gesticulated emotionalism would accompany any and all coverage of the September 11 anniversary. And I just can’t take it.
The other, more significant part, though, was that I still have so much difficulty thinking about that day. It is an incredibly painful memory (and I wasn’t even there!), and I — perhaps all Americans? — am still figuring out how to process what I saw on September 11, and what I’ve seen since.
I had just left from my music theory section (it was still early enough in the semester that I was going to class), and went for my habitual post-class bagel at the Hoosier Cafe. I honestly don’t remember anymore what I saw on the television first, but I know that I didn’t believe it. I also didn’t believe it when I saw a second plane fly itself into the other tower, or when, in a fury of fire and smoke, they both collapsed. Or at least I didn’t want to believe it. That such an attack had occurred. That the buildings were gone, as were the lives within them.
I rushed to my dorm room, and woke up my roommate. I called my stepdad to get any news about my mother, who teaches on a federal army base. They were on lockdown, everyone safe. I called my great-uncle, Tom, for news about my cousin Amy, who lived and worked in the city. She was safe and sound across the river in Jersey. I sat staring at the television for as long as I could before I had to leave for work.
For the first two years I was at IU, I worked as a teacher’s assistant at Hoosier Courts Cooperative Nursery School. I had the lunch shift — show up at 11, fix and serve lunch, then keep the kids quiet during nap-time. Thankless work, but it was a paycheck and I liked children.
I showed up that morning to a school building full of dazed adults and completely, innocently oblivious children. The grownups clearly trying to avoid meeting each other’s gaze, knowing that any, even silent, acknowledgement of the tragedy occurring in real time might attract the notice of the children around us. The children, who had no way of knowing. Knowing the kind of evil that could perpetrate such a crime. Knowing the depth of human pain and suffering it would cause. Knowing that their world, their lives, would, without their consent, be atrociously altered by a reign of fear and suspicion.
Several parents arrived to take their children home. They simply wanted their loved ones close by, at hand, secure, there.
Later that day, overwhelmed with information from the television and internet, I left my dorm building, wandering through the early autumn night, wishing it felt colder. I stepped into a question-and-answer forum the university had thrown together in Alumni Hall and listened as students expressed their fear of reprisals against the Muslim-American community or called for the community to offer an artistic response.
Like others my age who began college in the fall of 2001, my entire adult existence has been defined by the attacks on September 11. We’ve come of age in a time of color-coded security, of jingo-laden patriotism, of us-against-them dualism that defies all actual understanding of the human condition.
And we’re being given by our elders a world that makes even less sense than we could have possibly imagined ten years ago and a day.
Some years later, I was music-directing a student production of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Assassins’. There’s a musical number — “Something Just Broke” — that was cut in the original production but restored in the Broadway revival. Groups licensing the musical are given the option of including it or not.
I was, for a number of reasons, resistant to including it at first. But every time I listened to it, its message became more clear, its purpose more necessary. In it, you hear voices of Americans across the years reacting to news of the assassinated president — news that is so sudden, so stark, and so tragic that it sears into your memory forever where you were and what you were doing at that moment. An event that changes everything. That brings us all together, if only for a moment.
Our parent’s generation asked each other, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?”
Our generation has its own moment to remember. Our response to it still remains to be seen.