Kids have great intuition, or at least this is something that I read and had experienced in my childhood. (Perhaps it’s also that adults are not as good at faking their emotions as they think they are — food for thought.) But, you could feel something was amiss amid the seventh-grade classrooms I inhabited that day. The smell of fresh pencils, new binders, and pre-teen anticipation were all in the air as the new year had barely started, and yet, here it was.
I imagine we were just getting used to our schedules. Bell rings to allow everyone into the hallways at 7:45 a.m. Homeroom begins shortly after that followed by however many periods of learning are designated for each grade until lunch is earned. If I remember correctly, my grade had one of the first lunches that year.
I observed odd behavior — perhaps it was the math teacher counseling with the science teacher at an odd angle in the hall, so that her body was still facing us but her awareness was elsewhere — and felt an odd sense that something wasn’t quite right. More accurately, I could tell that the teachers were hiding something from us, but was certain it would come out eventually. What people want to keep hidden always does. I felt a bit like Nancy Drew in the time between when I first noticed something amiss until when they finally told us what was happening, searching for clues and eavesdropping on these covert conversations in an effort to find out what was happening. It’s fair to say I don’t remember anything I learned in classes that day.
The seventh grade was seated among our lunch tables. That year, my friends and I chose the long, rectangular table nearest the exit to the cafeteria and into the foyer of the school, if you will. The main office was opposite these bank of cafeteria doors. I liked to sit on the side of the table with my back to the dozen rows of tables filled with my peers, leaving me a clear view of the front doors of the school and the office. But all I remember of my view that day is the circular speaker, a metal plate really in the wall seated a few feet above the cafeteria doors, with a series of circles that looked a bit like I’d expect a beehive to look, a few inches in from the rim of the plate. It’s what broke the news to us: A plane had crashed into the World Trade Centers in New York City.
I don’t believe I had the capacity to understand what that meant at 12. I believe they had a hard time trying to decide whether to tell us or not, but I think they made the right decision. I was in school for the rest of lunch and perhaps another period of classes before my Mom picked us up, my sister was a grade behind me at the middle school and my brother right next door just beginning his school career. I had heard that some teachers merely let the kids watch the news.
I wasn’t in one of those classes. The first time I saw what was happening, I was kneeling, perhaps two feet away from our tube television console in the living room, watching the smoke billowing from the first tower. I remember looking at what a clear blue-sky day it was that day from the looks of the television and turning my head to look out the front door of my house. The same clear blue sky, the kind of day that should contain stories of leaves falling, football games and young love found over a kickball game at recess.
The next thing my memory flashes to when going through the movie reel that is my life is the mural of the flag, created with thousands of individual stars, memorializing all the Americans lost that day. It was bolted, with washers and screws the size of nickles, on the same wall that has the cafeteria doors and the loudspeaker that broke the news. The wall that, unlike me, faced a dozen rows of adolescents eating their breakfasts and lunches, gathered in the communal room for a sporting event or other function, and otherwise going about their days, but forever altered by the momentous time in history.
It’s impossible to go through a day like today without reviewing this film in your memory, at least for me. And also for me, it’s those details, like the startling sight of a clear blue sky and the smell of new binders that place me right back in that scene. Where were you? What sensory stimulation takes you back to that day?