There are some events in History that are just so impactful and larger than life that we all know exactly where we were and what we were doing when they happened.
When 9/11 began to unfold in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania, I was just welcoming a class of Primary-aged students into the Library at my school in Bowmanville, Ontario. My only thoughts at the time were ensuring that everyone was sitting quietly so I could launch into my read aloud story. Just as I was to begin, the school custodian entered and motioned for me to come over. We are both diehard Toronto Maple Leaf fans so, for him to interrupt my class must have meant a big trade had happened or so I thought. But, unfortunately, the news wasn’t hockey-related. Both towers were on fire by the time he spoke with me. Moments later, he returned to say that one tower had fell. My custodian was a big, strong man but, his complexion was ashen by this point.
I’m not sure what any of us taught that day. The whole day was a blur. Parents showed up throughout the day to withdraw their children, keeping them as close as close could be at home. Teachers gathered around computers to watch CNN online. The whole school seemed silent…..all 700 staff and students, silent. Some unbelievably serious stuff was happening and we didn’t know why. But, in times like that, as is so often the case, we automatically came together as a school community. We answered all student questions as best we could. We stayed calm, at least on the outside, and that helped keep the kids calm. We supported each other; especially, our one staff member who had a daughter who worked for National Geographic and who happened to be at a conference in Washington that day. It was four long hours before the phone call finally came and everyone allowed themselves to breathe again. And then, we went home and watched TV and watched TV and watched TV.
The enormity of the violence remains surreal.
This past summer, my family and I travelled to New York City and visited the 9/11 Memorial. The experience of doing so moves me still. It is hard to fathom what exactly happened that day at the tip of Manhattan Island, even standing on the very site of the tower collapses. The scale of the loss is almost overwhelming.
But, what strikes me most about the events of that day are the individual stories that arose as the dust was, quite literally, still settling. The phone calls to loved ones from those trapped within the towers before they fell. The First Responders who, despite lugging heavy gear, climbed up into the towers past those who were fleeing downward and out. The citizens in Gander, Newfoundland, who housed and cared for all those stranded passengers from the jumbo jets that landed there when U.S. airspace was closed.
The 9/11 Memorial Museum does a superb job at putting a human face on an inhuman tragedy. We entered the Museum to the sound of a perpetual roll call of honour for the victims. “My sister, _______”, “My father, _________”, “My friend, _________”, “My Captain, _________” and on and on it went. Then, we entered a gallery that housed photos of each victim; some had displays of personal items with them that had been donated by their families. You could touch a computer screen to find out more about each person who lost their life that September 11th morn. Then, an exhibit showing a crushed fire truck, where we learned of the heroic deeds of the many police officers and fire fighters who gave their lives to save others. Cantor-Fitzgerald stationary, single shoes, photos in broken frames that once sat upon office desks, dust-covered articles of clothing…..the things that once belonged to people who lived and were real. There was even a display dedicated to rescue animals who entered the smouldering wreckage. Lives forever changed. Heroes all.
As humans, we all have worth and value that becomes apparent when our stories are told. We are richer for this knowledge having been recorded and passed on. As individuals and as societies, we grow stronger when we honour the stories of those still around us and strive for a more peaceful existence for us all. That was the message my whole family took from our visit to the 9/11 Memorial site. Peace.
For us, the most powerful moment we collectively shared as a family occurred toward the end of our tour. We came upon a map of the world on a wall. Before it, stood a row of computers. Sophie touched the computer screen and was asked to enter the town or city where we were from. She did. Instantly, a point of light appeared on the map where Cobourg would be. Next, we were asked to offer a message of hope. Leah typed in, “We are with you.” Sophie drew a peace sign. I drew four hearts; each one containing the first letter of each of our names. Then we pressed Enter. With the Cobourg light still flashing, our message of hope appeared on the wall. Along with our message, those written by other Museum guests appeared and disappeared all throughout the moments that followed. Hope and Peace, rising up out of the ruins of the Twin Towers. That was the only photo we took from inside the Memorial because, as Leah correctly pointed out, “This just doesn’t seem like the time to be taking pictures.”
There is a lot of ugliness in our world but, there is a lot of beauty, too. So, whenever 9/11 rolls around, I choose to focus on the stories of how humanity redeemed itself in the aftermath of that day. I place my bets on the goodness of people coming to the fore in times of tragedy and loss. I am optimistic about our future.
So, as 9/11 began with both, President Bush and I sitting in front of children while holding a book, it ends today with the affirmation, from my family to yours, America, that we are with you. We were on that day and we are on this day, too. God Bless.