From the outset of the day, I didn’t sense anything different. The air outside was typical of the early autumn climate; it was sunny with a warm light breeze. It seemed like a lovely morning and the only thing to dread was yet another day of junior high. I was twelve years old at the time, and had been living in America for three years. Since my family moved from Ukraine, I was proud to be living in what many people consider the greatest city in the world, the famous New York City. I felt safe and secure and I was adjusting to my new life and my new school. On that particular morning, my expectations were no less and no more than those for my average school day. As usual I woke up grumpy from lack of sleep, and forcefully dragged myself out of bed. And of course, like on any other morning I missed the B11 bus and was running late to school.
I was following my normal routine and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Throughout the morning I stumbled up and down the stairs and bumped my way through the narrow halls past the crowds of faceless arrogant teens. However, by lunchtime there seemed to be some kind of commotion in the air, the type of quiet disarray that you can’t quite put a finger on. Kids were receiving unsettling phone calls from parents, and now the air was becoming increasingly discomforting. I didn’t have the convenience of cell phone to connect me to the outside world, so I was only able to gather bits and pieces of information as I observed the unnatural unrest in the lunchroom. Even though cell-phones weren’t allowed in school, they actually proved very useful for those that had them on that September morning. The only clue I had was if I bothered to look out of the window I would see a faint trail of smoke far in the horizon.
I had been sitting in my science class when I began to have an inkling that something was just a bit off. I remember it was a Tuesday because that day we had a double period of chemistry separated by a lunch break in the middle. Except this time my regular teacher didn’t show up for the second section of the class. Right after the break a substitute teacher replaced her without any introduction. She nonchalantly assigned us some work to hold us over for the period and announced that it would be collected and graded by our regular teacher. The class was confused by the turn of the events, since we had just seen our teacher before break and everything seemed fine. We exchanged surprised glances among ourselves, and the class clown broke the ice, voicing the question of the entire class: “Why did our teacher leave in the middle of class?” The rest of us followed suit and began to bombard her with questions – all to no avail. The sub was not able to satisfy our curiosity, and that increased our restlessness. She avoided any concrete answers and just told us that she wasn’t in the position to tell us anything, but that we would all know soon enough.
As if on cue, with 11 minutes remaining in the period, the entire school was called down into the cafeteria, class by class. By this time, we were bewildered and it became clear that something was brewing in the atmosphere. Class was not interrupted for trivial matters – and I just couldn’t shake off that creepy sensation that something horrible was brewing in the air. All around there were phone calls being made, whispers and rumors going around among the kids, and orders being followed. Our academy facilitator stood up on one of the cafeteria tables so that everyone could see and hear him as he was making announcements and directing affairs. I remember wondering how the old table with its paint chipping off was able to hold the facilitator’s hefty frame. The facilitator read a list of student names who were supposed to proceed into the hallway immediately since they were being picked up by their parents. I was shocked to hear my own name, because I generally didn’t get picked up from school, no less in the middle of the day! I took public transportation to get home, and my parents were working the entire day, so I was completely confused at this point. Nevertheless, I glanced at my friends as I left, only to be even more surprised to see my big sister, Irina, waiting for me in the lobby by the entrance of the school. She had a look of distress overshadowing the features of her pretty face, and I could no longer believe in the possibility that there was a simple explanation for the entire disturbance.
“What happened? Why is everyone being picked up?” I ran up to her and immediately began to shower her with questions, trying to allay my confusion.
“They didn’t tell you anything?” asked my sister. “You don’t know what’s going on at all?”
“What do you mean?” Just tell me already, I wanted to scream.
She sounded cryptic as she promised to tell me everything once we get to the car. It wasn’t going to be easy to say, I could tell that much.
When we finally got there, I saw her boyfriend, Robert (now her husband) at the wheel. He had come from work wearing a suit, and was driving with sunglasses on to block the sun, which was deceivingly bright and falsely promising of a radiant day. He seemed to be knowledgeable about what has happened and what to do next, and everything started to fall into place as Robert and Irina began to uncover the current events. I was shocked to hear about the horrible acts taking place right in NYC, and I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. The more I heard, the more I grew disgusted at my own ignorance.
At that point all I wanted was to see my parents and have their reassurance that everything will be O.K. I wanted to feel comforted and I wanted to know that they are safe. However, my parents were at work as expected; they had been working at a pharmaceutical company upstate NY. Their commute ordinarily took one and a half hours by car, through Manhattan. Even if my parents left work now, there’s no telling when they’d get home! Besides, they didn’t have a cell phone so they wouldn’t be able to reach us from the road. The only contact we had with them was when they called my sister to tell her how to handle the situation and instruct her to pick me up. They said they will be on their way home and warned her that they may even have to spend the night along the road, maybe in a hotel.
Immediately after getting home, my sister and I turned on the TV to watch the reports and traffic updates. With a trembling hand, I flipped through the channels, all of which featured the same grim clips. I imagined what it would be like to be one of those people on the screen. How would it feel to feel everything around you crumbling? If I were there, could I even process what was happening through the devastatingly loud noise and chaos all about? Would I know where to run for safety, or would I feel trapped? The foundation of my whole world would be instantly shattered, and as evidence New York City’s skyline would bear the marks of infringe.
That night I was terrified to think, I was terrified to feel. I could not absorb all the information that the media sent out. The mass destruction was unbelievable – surely it was inhuman in nature, I remember thinking. Plus it was hard for me to deal with the images of horror and the people running from the dark smoky pillars, literally scattering in every direction. I was especially nervous and scared to think about my parents getting home that night. Sick with worry, the three of us at home were waiting to hear from them, trying not to jump to conclusions. I remember pacing the apartment and not knowing what to do with myself, where to turn, and how to process all the emotions that I was feeling. My sister and I prayed for my parents and for all the people who were at the actual site of the calamity. They, more than anyone, would have to deal directly with the consequences of that fateful day. Later I was heartbroken to find out that one of my friends lost his mother to the disaster. Even with time, his facial features have retained the pain he has felt in the intense, almost haunted, gaze he acquired since then. It is doubtful that the carefree glitter of his eyes will ever return. To this day I cannot begin to imagine how he has been coping with this tragic loss. I can only relate to a fraction of a degree, simply because I have felt the same fear: the fear of not knowing whether you will see your parents walking through the door or not.
Finally, late into the night, my parents showed up! It took them five hours to get home because they had to make a huge detour around the city and go through the Bronx, but at least they wouldn’t be stuck there overnight. My sister and I were relieved, and when my parents finally appeared at the door, we were filled with joy. We hugged like we never hugged before, and felt grateful to have each other.
I will never forget how the events of that day unfolded for my family in particular, and in a more general sense how it affected the world. Anyone could relate to some event that has in one way or another touched them and will forever remain in their memories. Just as the skyline of NYC suffered a breach, my own values and outlook on life were shook up. Everything got flipped upside down and I was no longer sure that NYC was indeed the center of the world; I no longer felt sheltered from harm and my sense of security now felt distant and somehow surreal. After experiencing something like that, everything else in life becomes relative to that one point, the one cataclysmic moment that will forever stand out from the background.