Ten years ago at this time, I was getting ready for school. Another ordinary day of teaching high school biology class. Get notes together, prepare for a lab I was running that day. My personal life had recently changed for the better -- after two years as a divorced single dad, I had a girlfriend, Carol, whom my kids loved, and I was spending every moment I could with her. On that day ten years ago, however, I was thinking about the fact that I wouldn't be seeing her for a week, because she was at the airport, getting ready to board a plane for a business trip for her job at Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology.
It was during my second period class that I went back into my office to get something I'd forgotten, to see the other biology teacher, Susan, staring at her computer. I'd often heard people say that someone was "white with shock," but I'd never actually seen it until that day. I thought Susan was going to faint, or throw up.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"A plane just hit the World Trade Center," she said, in a thin voice.
I immediately pictured a small plane, something carrying six people or so.
"That's terrible," I said. "Some amateur pilot lost control, or something?"
Susan turned toward me, wide-eyed. "No," she said, and her usual eloquence failed her. "A plane. A jet. A great big jet, full of people."
And then it happened again. And again. And again. The other Tower was hit. Reports came in from the Pentagon, from the field in Pennsylvania. Four planes had been, apparently deliberately, turned into weapons. For a time, no one knew which planes they were, nor where they had started from.
And my girlfriend was flying that day.
It is the one and only time that I completely came unraveled in front of a class. The principal came in, ran the rest of my second period class for me. I had third period off (fortunately), and sat in my office, looking at the news as it unfolded online, and sobbing.
It was almost 11 o'clock when Carol called school to say she was safe. Her plane, due to take off right around the time the first Tower was hit, had sat on the tarmac for nearly an hour, and finally turned around and everyone deplaned back into the airport -- and that was when she saw, on the televisions in the airport, what had happened.
The rest of the day went by in a surreal blur. Crying students, crying teachers. Finding out that one of our elementary school teachers had a brother who worked in the World Trade Center. (It wasn't until several days passed that she learned that her brother had, indeed, died in the attack.) My girlfriend coming over that night, and spending the evening just holding each other, feeling sick and dazed and still not really believing.
Ten years have passed, and that day still stands, along with the Challenger explosion, as one of those "where were you when...?" moments that I will never forget so long as I live. Much has been made of 9/11 as a turning point -- how Americans will never see themselves the same way, that it was a moment of national unity, that it destroyed our complacency and our perception of being safe, that it brought the best out of the heroes who helped to save lives during the catastrophe (a sizable number of whom lost their lives themselves).
I agree with all of those things, but I wonder about what we've actually learned in those ten years. Partisan rancor still is the order of the day. We continue, as a nation, to meddle in foreign affairs, drawing away billions of dollars that could be spent on our domestic needs of health care and education for our citizens. We've become warier, but in a general, broad-brush fashion -- who among us hasn't boarded a plane, and seen a dark-skinned man traveling with a woman wearing a head scarf, and thought, "Could they be terrorists?" We hear the warnings announced when we travel, and many of us laugh -- because there's a sense that if we get hit again, it will be once more in a way we never could have anticipated, for all of the TSA pornographic body scans and orange alerts and chemical swipes to detect explosives. Deep down, we all know that we aren't safe, we never were safe, and you take a chance every time you step out of your front door.
Our lives changed forever ten years ago, but in some ways, we haven't changed much. We still fly, we still go to the tops of skyscrapers, we still go about our lives without thinking about it much, except when anniversaries like this come along. And tomorrow, once the anniversary is over, we'll once again lull our anxieties to sleep.
It's how humans are. We can't live in perpetual fear; we're not built that way. You think about it, you look at the photographs, you relive what you went through. Then life picks up again, and we move on, doing what we do, repeating the same mistakes we've always made, being humans -- including the best and worst of what that word means. And perhaps this is the best possible outcome, really, that when tragedy strikes; it doesn't, it can't really change the core of humanity. Our resilience is perhaps our most remarkable trait.
So mark this day in whatever way seems appropriate -- a moment of silence, a church service, a gathering with friends, or (like me) a written elegy for that awful day of devastation ten years ago. And then, tomorrow, we move forward, not because we've forgotten, but because even though catastrophes like this one leave their mark on us, they cannot destroy the fundamental center of who we are.