Nine years ago today I was taking a calculus test in a classroom at James I. O’Neill High School in Highland Falls, NY, about 2 miles from the campus of the United States Military Academy at West Point. My teacher stopped us all to tell us that something terrible had happened, but that he wasn’t going to elaborate and we should finish our tests. Bullshit. You can’t drop news like that and assume everything will go on as planned. I was doing pretty bad in that class though, so I probably wouldn’t have finished the test under normal circumstances anyway.
When the bell rang, I left my classroom only to hear my classmates on the phone with their parents, many of whom worked on West Point, or were officers in the Army. A friend of mine, on the phone with his father, a colonel, handed me the phone, because his dad was with my mom. I still hadn’t been told exactly what happened. “Mom? What’s going on?” And the line went dead. It was at that moment the Pentagon had been hit. The Towers would fall a little while later.
As people evacuated lower Manhattan, running for their lives, bridges all up and down the Hudson River closed, leaving my friends from Garrison, NY stranded, looking for a place to spend the night. The gates of West Point shut down, no one allowed to enter or leave. My friends from West Point waited in their cars for hours, simply waiting to pass through the gates and get home. I went home, waiting for my parents to be able to leave their respective jobs. I watched all of the news by myself, until friends starting pouring in to spend the night. When the phones came back on, I called everyone in my family, and I was lucky to say, even though some had been trapped in buildings in Manhattan, or others had watched the planes crash into the Towers on their way to work, everyone was safe.
I think the best way to classify Sept. 11, 2001 is to say it was my “Adam and Eve” moment. Until that day, my life had been very sheltered. Only then did I realize my life was just as vulnerable as anyone else’s. America was just as vulnerable as any other country.
West Point and the surrounding community rallied at the call. We gave blood. We donated clothes and food to the first responders. One man even painted an American flag on the side of his home (and it’s still there today). In the worst moments of our country’s history, the best came out in people.
The Friday following Sept. 11, I attended a memorial ceremony on the Plain at West Point. In complete darkness, the 4,000-strong Corps of Cadets sang “Amazing Grace,” accompanied by a lone bag pipe player, illuminated by a single light. By candle light, the Corps then sang the Academy’s Alma Mater. To say there wasn’t a dry eye in the house would be an understatement. These men and women would soon be at war. And we all knew that this was going to be a battle that would be long and hard.
Now today we sit and argue. We say the war on terrorism is wrong, or we’re fighting in places we shouldn’t be. The economy is terrible. The job market in shambles. And New Yorkers have spent the majority of the past few weeks dealing with the controversy of an Islamic mosque being built mere feet from Ground Zero, while a religious leader in Florida thought that burning the Koran was a good idea. And these things make me cringe.
At times I sit and think that the world can’t get any crazier, but we all know that naivety will get us nowhere. The world will get crazier if we let it. While we may not believe it, the outcome of all of this lays in all of our hands.
So, don’t just remember Sept. 11 one day a year. This day, nine years ago, affected all of our lives, globally and at home. It shifted the universe. Life, as all of us knew it, changed that day. In the wake of everything, I feel like we’re a nation trying to be heard. But in order to be heard, you have to listen. In order to be helped, you have to lend a hand. In order to be understood, you have to take into consideration other’s opinions. And in order to be carried, you have to be strong enough to lift a load as well.
“The city is going to survive, we are going to get through it, It’s going to be a very, very difficult time. I don’t think we yet know the pain that we’re going to feel when we find out who we lost, but the thing we have to focus on now is getting this city through this, and surviving and being stronger for it.” – former NYC Mayor Rudy Guiliani