Though I had spent two years of graduate school in New York City, I was not quite a New Yorker. So, when I walked into an advisory meeting at the private K-12 school at which I taught on Long Island, I didn’t quite understand what my friend Mary Alice meant when she said in shock, “A plane just hit the Twin Towers.” It was just after 9:00am.
At that time, the school campus where I was teaching was renovating the Upper School building, so we had all of our high school classes in
trailers Modular Units. It was pre-texting and pre-Emergency Management on a global scale. We, as Head Advisers, knew we only had a few minutes until the entire campus would enter into a panic. At a wealthy private school just outside of the city, we were well aware that many of the parents worked in the Financial District. The Head Advisers walked out of the Modular Units only to have military jets fly overhead, so close it felt like they could buzz the top of the athletic center.
Quickly, the high school students communicated and were gathered into a conference room where we frantically tried to call their parents. Teenagers, who just a few hours before were fiercely arguing whether or not their skirts were too short (they had to pass the “knee test”) or whether their collared shirts were, in fact, in dress code, were crying for their Moms and Dads. The Middle School division was carefully addressing what was happening in the city just miles away from the school; The Lower School Division — they had to pretend as if nothing was going on. The teachers, through their tears, needed to be cheery for their young students who could not even comprehend what was happening.
Parents arrived. Dismissal and accountability procedures were set into place.
It was a day that seemed to never end. As teachers, coaches, and the adults who were nearest to the children, we had to serve as their parents until, thankfully, their parents returned to get them.
Except for one.
A student in my middle school class lost his father in the Trade Center.
Countless others lost their uncles, friends of parents, and parents of friends.
I still remember the smell of the air the next morning. It was a mix of metal, fire, burning paper, and acid. As we learned more about what happened, it was a smell of hate. Of sadness. Of pain. Of fear.
Over the past decade, I have grown close to a few military families who have spent more time away from their spouses and children as they have served in the Middle East. I’ve celebrated (virtually) a welcome home, and within a few months, a deployment of my friends. I’ve been a support for a friend whose husband was deployed while her child was going through chemotherapy. I’ve reconnected with high school friends who have served, and some who are still in service to our country today. And, while I don’t agree with war, I do respect sacrifice. I respect bravery. I do respect courage.
I do not celebrate the death of a man, for I know that his death does not represent the death of hate. It does not represent the death of terror. Of terrorism. Nor of intolerance.
My heart races with anxiety when I watch my husband play Call of Duty; I cannot imagine the feeling that the soldiers felt as they were feet away from their target. I cannot imagine the feeling that the families of those soldiers felt as they heard where their son, husband, brother, uncle was going.
Within minutes of reading that Osama bin Ladin had been killed, I felt relief, pride, and closure. Within another minute, I felt sadness, heartbreak, and anxiety. I thought of my student — an American female who wears a hijab. I thought of my former student whose father was not here to see him graduate from the school at which I taught. I thought of the people — who have never sacrificed a day to fight in the war, nor known anyone who had lost their life on 9/11 , nor actively held the hand of anyone who is serving away from their families — who thought the honorable way to celebrate was to party and “Get.Drunk.” I thought of my anger and disgust at the images of select groups of people in the Middle East burning the US flag on 9/11. And, I felt those same feelings of anger and disgust as I saw the images of select groups of Americans cheering on 5/1.
We were no better for doing the very thing that we hated.
Upon hearing about the US completion of this mission, I prayed for the safety of those who continue to serve away from home. I prayed for the safety of my friends and students who are frequently perceived to not “be American”. I prayed for the many victims of hate, particularly in the name of religion.
I prayed for the people of all religions, who are often taught about exclusion rather than inclusion. I prayed that our nation, our world, and the world’s people find equal opportunities to celebrate life. I prayed for the closure that this event brought to many families. And, I prayed for the road ahead for many families who may now be called into service.
At first, I struggled with the duality of this celebration — the celebration of both death and life. But, I am realizing that the event can have multiple emotions because it is not a singular event. Rather, it is a moment that brings both sadness and joy; peace and heartache; success and defeat.
It brings closure to some and open new wounds for others.
I most certainly do not take a position of telling anyone how to feel. I do ask that we reflect deeply upon what has occurred, did occur, and will occur.
My thoughts and prayers for peace go to the families of those who were lost on 9/11, the victims of hate based on religious and cultural identities of Americans in the years following, and the safety of all those who have lived in service to our nation.
I pray that we respect the duality that this brings, that we understand our community of memory is both shared and different, and we uphold human dignity by seeking to unite rather than divide.