Heartbreak and history

It was just another Tuesday, and I was just another 15-year-old sophomore in high school.

My mind had little regard for anything except girls, sports, what I’d eat for lunch and how I’d get through math class.

I didn’t have a cell phone or a driver’s license.

I was nowhere near New York City or the World Trade Center.

Terrorism was just a word.

I’m 32 now. Things are different.

I know you might skim this story on your cell phone. I know you might be too young to remember what happened.

Maybe you weren’t even born.

Maybe all you know about Sept. 11, 2001, came from what you’ve seen on social media or heard in history class.

My friend wrote a column about Sept. 11 last week, in which she made a wonderful point about what I remember most from the the day’s aftermath. I’ve thought about you since I read it. I thought about you again this morning, when I saw an Instagram post from a history teacher who had students interview someone who has a clear memory of what happened 17 years ago today to help them see a different picture of one of America’s most disasterous days.

I’ll never forget what unfolded in those hours.

If you can’t remember, and you have a minute to spare, I’d like to try to take you to a time when the history you’ve heard was just heartbreak.

I hadn’t been in my desk in the back row of the 10th-grade agriscience classroom long when my teacher turned on the TV.

We all just stared.

There was a huge fireball on the side of what we’d soon come to know as the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

We watched a long stream of black smoke pour from the hole, and news anchors said they believed an airplane had flown into the tower.

When the second plane hit the South Tower, we heard voices groomed to be calm and steady crack and cry. For a few moments, some anchors who’d stayed on script for years had no words.

They just watched along with us, and we kept watching.

We learned some of what we saw fall from the buildings was people who had jumped from windows.

We saw people covered in ash run through the streets away from what became known as Ground Zero.

We saw firefighters, police officers and other emergency responders run toward it.

The TV was on in all of my classes. We watched as one tower collapsed, and the other one crashed to the ground soon after.

We’d seen the clip of someone whisper the news to President George W. Bush while he read to some kids at an elementary school in Florida.

Chances are, you know the parts of the story I just mentioned. Chances are you’ve watched the same footage I saw 17 years ago in a high school classroom.

I have little doubt you know more facts about the day than I knew on the day.

One thing was clear to me right after the second plane hit the South Tower. America had been attacked.

I had no idea who or what was behind what I saw.

I had no idea if we’d ever find out.

I had no idea if whoever had carried out the attacks would ever be brought to justice.

I had no idea if it was over, or if more attacks would happen.

You now know it wasn’t over until another plane plowed into the Pentagon and still another crashed into a field after heroic passengers saved lives when they took matters into their own hands.

You now know all of the answers to the things I had no idea about then.

Such is the hindsight of history.

My cousin had her license so she took me home from school.

I don’t think either one of us said much.

There’s not much to say when the world you knew when you went to school had disappeared by the time you left.

It’s hard to find words when terrorism went from just a word to reality in an instant.

Each year on the anniversary of the attack, it seems another story is told about people who lost their lives, people who saved lives and people who lived to pick up the pieces of lives forever changed.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, I never thought about the possibility of an attack on America.

You may have never had such a luxury. Maybe all you’ve ever known is a world at war.

I remember people wanted to fight in the days after the attacks. Many enlisted in the armed forces, and many still protect the freedoms we hold dear to this day. There was a surge of patriotism, for lack of a better phrase, unlike any I’d seen before.

America vowed to rise from the rubble, and I knew then we would.

The way we did is what I want to try to tell you about.

We rose as one.

Maybe I was naive, but for some time after the nation was attacked, it seemed to me there was less black or white and more people helping people. There were less strangers and more neighbors.

People prayed for one another. People loved one another.

Such things may be hard to believe if you’ve lived all of your life in a time torn by hate.

The United States of America lived up to its name in the days after Sept. 11, 2001.

I wish you could have seen it.

Maybe you can. Maybe we can.

There was what was once unimaginable chaos 17 years ago today, but there was also plenty of courage and kindness.

We could use a lot more kindness today.

Maybe it will show through more discussion and less discord.

Maybe we can start by offering help instead of hate, and openness instead of outrage.

Many scars from Sept. 11 will never heal, but from its heartbreak sprung renewal and resolve.

Maybe there’s more to learn from Sept. 11 than the facts you’ve heard in history class.

Maybe there’s a lesson in the heartbreak and in the healing.

When we were faced with pure evil, we found good in fellow Americans.

We need good now more than ever. More than ever, we need to learn togetherness.

More than ever, we need to learn to love one another again.

The truth is, heartbreak and history all too often go hand in hand.

It’s important to look at and learn from both.

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