an american flag at half mast with a blue sky and clouds in background
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I was 15 and sitting in biology class. The vice principal’s voice came across the PA system and told us planes had crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. There was talk of a related plane crash in rural Pennsylvania.

My first thought was “This is like real-life Independence Day.” Yes, as in the 1996 blockbuster film starring Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman. The image of a giant menacing spaceship shooting fire or lasers at an exploding White House below was all I could picture as I heard the news.

Meanwhile back in reality, our teachers wheeled televisions on metal carts into the classrooms, so we could watch the news continue to unfold.

After two more class periods, I couldn’t take anymore. At lunchtime, I said I had a stomachache and waited for my mom to pick me up and bring me home. (By that point, I wasn’t even faking it. I think we all were sick to our stomachs by the unfolding events.) When we arrived home, I curled up in my bed and listened to Backstreet Boys’ Millennium album on repeat.

The next few weeks blur together in my memory. I remember random little things here and there like the following:

  • A classmate telling everyone her mom said they would move to Canada so her brother wouldn’t get drafted;
  • Every TV station transforming into a 24-hour news channel, even MTV;
  • A slew of “We Are the World”-esque songs and telethon fundraisers;
  • A 9/11 Beanie Baby; yes, really;
  • The sudden ubiquity of patriotic clothing and American flag bumper stickers;
  • A loved one saying, “I might as well let myself have a cinnamon bun. After all, who knows how long we all have left!”

I also can recall going through a period where I’d panic whenever something reminded me of the morning of 9/11. I couldn’t wear a certain blue headband ever again because I was wearing it when I heard about the attacks. If it was a Tuesday or the 11th of a month, and there was a clear blue sky, my heart would start racing and I’d feel nauseated, convinced it was a sign from God that something bad would happen that day.

In addition, for the next few years whenever I heard the telltale buzzing and clicking of the school’s ancient PA system switching on, I’d feel a lump in my throat, and I’d begin steeling myself for an announcement that something bad had happened. To this day, I feel the same way whenever there’s a “breaking news special report” on TV.

One of my former teachers used to remind us that sophomore means “wise fool” – and honestly I think that phrase sums up that year pretty well for my peers and me. We entered our sophomore year of high school thinking this was when we started to feel grown up: We were no longer the “babies” of the school, and many of us would be turning 16 and starting to drive. We were foolish enough to think we were wiser than everyone else. Fifteen is a rollercoaster of an age, filled with equal parts bravado, rage, fear, panic, loyalty, vulnerability, passion, camaraderie and self-doubt. And I think we all felt those things as a country at one point or another in the days following 9/11.

What would I tell that 15-year-old girl sitting in biology class if I could go back in time? I’d tell her it’s okay to be scared and anxious, but don’t let it define every decision you make. I’d tell her to trust her heart that the terrible, hate-filled things she’d hear grown-ups and classmates alike say about certain groups in response to 9/11 were coming from places of ignorance and fear, not truth. I’d tell her that scary, uncertain times happen, and sometimes things are never the same again, but that doesn’t mean they are never good again, just different. And finally, I’d tell her that the freshman boy in choir named Chris – the one with the Marvin the Martian backpack –  may not be so bad after all, and she should probably give him a chance. He’ll make a great husband and father someday.

There’s really no overarching theme or point to be made with this blog post. I just needed to get these memories out into the world. Thanks for reading.

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