I was in Ms. Morgan’s AP English class. It was my first class of the day and I was tired because I had stayed up the night before writing a fantastic but last minute five page paper off the top of my head. I remember I had just gotten my hair done the previous Saturday, and I hoped that its shiny length was enough to offset the fact that I had on an oversized, red Old Navy sweatshirt and dark blue jeans that were beginning to hang off my frame, as I had begun to spend far less time eating, and far more time in the dance studio.
My favorite teacher, who’d been my Honors English teacher in the 10th grade and had managed to stay one of my most favorite people in the entire world in the two years since, poked her head into the door of the classroom.
“You should-“ she stopped herself, glancing quickly at the small group of students seated in random desks. “You should turn on the TV. Now.”
Her emphasis on the last word caught my attention. Something was very, very wrong. Her face was flushed a panicked red across her cheeks. Her eyes, usually soft and kind, were open so wide it seemed I could see every inch of the blue of her irises. I could feel a sense of dread creeping up my neck. My most favorite teacher in the entire world, usually enviably unflappable and collected, looked as undone as I had seen almost anyone. I had no idea why. But I was fairly certain it was nothing good.
By now Ms. Morgan had turned on the big, tubed TV, flipping through the channels on the front of the console, partially blocking the screen from view with her body. She settled on CNN. She watched for a moment until something she saw made her gasp and press the pads of her fingers against the screen.
“Oh, my God,” she murmured under her breath. She turned to us, the same wild look of panic in her eyes that her colleague had a moment before.
“I think,” she said, her voice unsure, “we should watch this together.”
I remember standing and walking to a desk closer to the TV, climbing up to sit on top of one desk, my feet planted in the seat of another in front of it. I read the words on the screen, listened to the voice of the reporter trying to explain what had happened, but was not entirely able to put it all together. How on earth do planes run into buildings?
I remember being curious, certain that it was an accident, that a pilot, drunk or sleepy taking off from La Guardia or JFK had made a mistake and flown too low and clipped the side of a building. I didn’t see a plane, so I assumed it had landed or crashed elsewhere and soon we would be seeing footage of the rescue efforts.
And then suddenly, there it was. The plane. Except it didn’t appear to be flying like a plane that had just hit a building. It flew swiftly, turned deftly, and slammed into the building next to the one that was already smoking.
I gasped so loud it hurt my chest. Both hands flew up to cover my mouth. I couldn’t process fast enough what I had just seen. How on earth do planes run into buildings on accident?
Tears flowed, hot and sticky over fingertips still clamped around my mouth. I hadn’t even realized I’d started to cry.
A couple years later, I remember boarding a southbound train from 116th, making sure to take the express so I would have less time and opportunities to talk myself out of going. I got off farther north than I intended, still new to the city and finding my way around, and walked for blocks and blocks, pretty sure I didn’t want to go, didn’t want to see, but equally as sure I could not stop my footsteps if I wanted to. I smiled at a cop standing on a street corner closer to the site, the standard tell that I was not from here. Expecting to be ignored or to receive the stiff head nod people give you when they want to be polite but don’t want to be bothered, I was surprised when this big bear of a man smiled warmly at me. He tipped his hat.
“You have a good one, Miss,” his accent as thick as the kind, old man who gave me my bagel with cream cheese and told me to “be happy and well” on my way to work every morning.
Before long I reached the massive walls that had been erected around the site. I dug a rosary out of my pocket which I kept for occasions just like this, when I knew I needed to pray but couldn’t manage to formulate a prayer of my own. I stood and I prayed the Hail Marys and Our Fathers I knew down to the depths of my heart, pausing to read the messages scrawled by different hands across the walls, unable to go closer and unable to look away. I prayed for those lost and for those left behind. For those who would grow sick and worn thin with grief. For those who sought to find justice in anarchy. I prayed for those whose suffering I would never be able to understand, and for citizens living in fear because of their birth place, religion or garb. I prayed that if I had to, I would know how to explain the horror and the goodness and the fear and the triumph, so that anyone who had not been there, who had not seen it, would never dare relegate it to a few simple pages of a history book.
I prayed that I may never forget.