Whenever I think about September 11th, I think about where I was when I heard the news. I think about how it felt like the world was crumbling. I think about how it felt to watch my family fall apart. I think about the people who lost their lives, people whose only crime was to get up and go to work that morning. I think about watching as the already difficult political situation we were living in unraveled. I think about how that was the beginning of living in uncertain, interesting, urgent times. But there is one thing I always think about but have never really thought about, until this morning, I realized something.
I was sixteen when September 11th hit. I grew up in a suburb outside of DC. Most of our parents worked for the government. Almost everyone I knew had at least one parent that worked for the government. We went to high school in a holding school that was 45 minutes away from our regular school. I had had my driver’s license for three weeks. We were two weeks into the school year. And the planes hit, and the towers fell, and I genuinely wondered if the world was ending.
There were a lot of heroes made in the aftermath of the attacks. We talk about police, we talk about firefighters, we talk about the coworkers who carried paralyzed officemates down hundreds of stories of buildings. But the people who I realized today have been my own heroes since the attacks were my high school teachers.
It has been one of the most interesting things about getting older to me now, to realize that at 26, I am older than several of my favorite high school teachers were when I had them. My government teacher was 23. My math teacher was 25. My American History teachers were 25 or 27. My English teachers were 30 and 32. I had older teachers, teachers with children our age, but I had a lot of very young teachers.
And on September 11th, as the world collapsed, our teachers, not older than I am now, held us together. We leaned on them, and they caught us. They kept us going, gave us space when we needed it and gave us structure when we needed it. As my fourth-period teacher pulled out an ancient looking radio, tuned it to the news, and turned the volume up, his face got gray and he looked as if he had aged ten years in a matter of minutes. We listened, quietly, shell-shocked, together. He didn’t try to make us focus on our classwork, he didn’t try to pretend this wasn’t the end of the world as we knew it. As we went to lunch, we were told that they weren’t going to let us go home.
Hundreds of students begged teachers to let us into their classrooms to continue watching or listening to the news. Almost all of us tried to reach our parents, only to realize the phones were down. Having a cell phone on campus, at this time, was an automatic ten-day suspension. Our teachers let us into the school offices to call our parents. They let us into their classrooms to watch the news. They listened as we broke down, hysterical, over parents and friends who worked at the Pentagon or in the Towers.
Thinking back on it now, they were so young. They must have been as frightened as we were. Yet they held it together, they kept us together. Some of them tried to get us back on task, some of them just let us listen to the news. My fifth period physics teacher told us it would be best for us if we would concentrate on physics if the school wasn’t going to let us go home. Halfway through the period, they told us we could go home. I still hadn’t been able to reach my mom, who I was supposed to take home from work that day. My mom, who had a morning meeting in DC that day. They let me into the office to call her cell, her work, our home number until I finally got through to her. I was one of the last students to leave the school, and the teachers and administrators were still there.
When we came back to school on the 13th, they were still there for us. There to talk to us. There to listen. My gym teacher listened as I tried to put into words the sense of loss and grief I felt. My math teacher excused us from a mind-numbing statistics assignment she had given, because as she waited to give blood at the red cross for nine hours, she tried to do our homework and found it impossible. Somehow, these teachers, younger than I am now, showed us that everything would be different, forever changed, and we would move forward regardless.
It has been said that if the world made any sense, the best among us would aspire to be teachers, and the rest of us would have to settle for something else. In my high school this was true.