Thursday, September 11, 2003
25 Days: A 9/11 Essay:
[Note: I've also sent this to the Voices project]
I arrived at American University on August 18th, 2001. It was a Saturday. Eager to leave home, yet pensive about the future, I hoped to begin college life with a clean slate. It lasted 25 days.
From those 25 days, I have wonderful memories of my first weeks of college. They’re probably the most detailed memories I have as well. I can remember the Freshman Service Experience that first week of college, working at a non-profit that helps other non-profits hire. The site wasn’t exactly noteworthy, but our little group made it the best of it, and had fun with it. I can remember moments from my first weeks of classes, of meeting more new people. I can remember the honors reception for the author of the freshman required reading, where I sat in the back with a friend “near the drinks” while others ended up at the front table with the author, and were forced into embarrassingly funny situations. I remember the group jaunt to Safeway, in which we took the grocery cart back to the dorm, which would come in handy when I later moved. I remember trying out for a part in A Chorus Line, in which I completely embarrassed myself with my utter lack of dancing ability; the experience later gave me a topic for a paper for that semester. I remember the de-tripling argument, in which I gave in and decided to be the one to move out, even though I’d later regret that move thousands of times over. And I remember, on Sunday, September 9th, 2001, monument hopping with friends, relishing the first three weeks of college.
I remember waking up on September 11, 2001. I’m sure I rolled out of bed at about 8:20 for my 8:30 class, threw on some clothes, and headed for Individual Freedom vs. Authority. I don’t exactly remember what we were discussing that day, although I’d assume it was something from Plato’s The Republic, probably about how the philosopher-king should rule. And so, I knew nothing of the day’s events until 9:55.
After Individual Freedom vs. Authority came Politics in the U.S. As I headed up to the classroom with other friends who had 8:30 classes, suddenly someone rushed in and announced, “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.” Our first reaction was denial; something like that was impossible. We found a radio, and tuned it to the first station we could find, which happened to be the Christian Broadcasting Network, which confirmed our classmate’s report. We frantically attempted to figure out if the projector in the classroom would play CNN. Indeed, it did.
And there was the picture. The towers of the World Trade Center were burning. Speculation was rampant within the classroom, even as the replays on the screen shocked our senses. And I turned for a second to make a comment to someone, and heard a gasp. One of the towers had collapsed. CNN showed it again. And it was just as shocking. Now people were scared. The news had also broken that a plane had hit the Pentagon. That spooked us even more. We were in Washington, D.C., just arrived 25 days ago. And now a plane had caused death just miles away.
As we were all transfixed to the TV set, the AU administration had decided to cancel classes, and students were to return to their dorms. As I walked across campus, I looked into the sky, which in New York and at the Pentagon, was filled with smoke. But here, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. As the U2 song that had been playing nonstop said, “It was a beautiful day.”
So we went back to the dorm and sat in front of CNN. At this point, rampant rumors were engulfing the news networks, including the infamously-repeated “car bomb at the State Department”. There was true news of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, and passing mentions of the U.S. blaming Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, although none of us noted the significance of it at the time. By 1:30 p.m., most of us embarked to the dining hall for a somber lunch. None of us wanted to talk; we just replayed the images in our heads, stunned. As we walked there, I looked up again. It was a beautiful day.
For the next few days, the campus was in a perennial state of shock. We watched CNN as they played the images over and over and over. Finally, about halfway through Wednesday, someone decided that enough was enough, and we were news-weary. Class began again on Thursday, and as I sat in my 9:55 English class, an administrator told the class to leave for the parking lot across the street. Just a bomb scare, but two days after 9/11, it resonated. And yet, that was the beginning of the healing process. Not able to return to campus, a bunch of us went to lunch in Friendship Heights, ready to face the world again, not afraid of being in Washington, D.C., not afraid of being a target.
After that day, the semester became a blur. Other major events that would have scarred me for life have become nothing in my memory compared to that fateful Tuesday. In fact, all the optimism of the first 25 days was gone, not to be regained in any way, shape or form until the next semester. I was just going through the motions.
As I walked to class this morning, 20 days after my arrival for my third year at American, I looked up to the sky and thought about the events of two years ago, and how we’ve all changed so much since. And there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was a beautiful day.
JH 6:07 PM