Quick Take: Remembrance

Yesterday was a long day of returning (and recuperating) from a bachelor party over the weekend. It was a day of brunch with friends, a day of dinner with my girlfriend and her sister, a day of doing laundry, as most Sundays are for me. Yesterday was September 11th. But it was a lot like any other day.

Yesterday I didn't post anything about 9/11. In recent years I usually just post American flag emojis. If a picture is worth 1000 words, an emoji has to be worth at least 250, and that's enough to cover whatever I might be thinking. But I didn't even do that until earlier today. I just didn't think to do it. If I'm being honest, I didn't want to. I watch too much of the news as it is, and yesterday felt like it would be overwhelming. I read somewhere that MSNBC replayed the full live broadcast of it unfolding. That struck me as a lot like live broadcasting porn and calling it "educational." I'm sure others felt differently. I chose not to engage with the day, with the 15th anniversary, with the strange sense of commemoration we as a nation would give to that number, that distance from our collective nightmare.

There's a way in which the constant reminders to remember 9/11, to "never forget," have the opposite effect on me. The busses in Pittsburgh display that imperative phrase prominently on their LED screens, not just around this time of year, but all year round. The crash site of Flight 93 in Somerset County isn't too far from here. It's the only flight number I've ever memorized. There's the media's constant warning to never forget, hashtags saying the same, and posts in our timelines (like this one). Reminders and remembrances are everywhere. In more ways than one, 9/11 is something most Americans can never choose to forget even if they want to.

Marty Lederhandler/AP

Marty Lederhandler/AP

I'm not saying it's wrong to engage with 9/11 so much, and I'm not saying it's right not to engage with it either. My point is that for me it's uneasy; remembering isn't just a nod and a solemn hum. The act of communally remembering something both so personal and so public is difficult. It feels like holding hands in a prayer circle I don't belong to, with hands I've never touched before. It feels like not being able to let go of those hands for fear of the circle judging me. It feels like too much emphasis on holding hands, and not enough on praying. Generally, I try to avoid it.

What is at stake in forgetting, and what is at stake in remembering? The semantics of this dichotomy have enough wiggle room for people to reach any variety of conclusions. I've gone back and forth a lot. I think this is why the reminders about both turn me off. It feels like I'm walking and someone keeps nudging me in the back shouting "Walk!" I get it. I'm already there. But the nudging makes me want to stop.

But if I was at a stop yesterday, today I was in a sprint.

Today, like most days at school so far, I sit in the back of Mrs. Metcalf's classroom, observing. The 5th grade class begins social studies talking about presidential elections, how often they happen, how they would be just starting high school the next time another one comes up. The classroom, full of kids who were only born as early as 2005, brings up the date written on the whiteboard—September 12. In an instant the conversation turns to 9/11. Mrs. Metcalf asks who can describe what happened, facilitating raised hands and shouts. The kids mostly know, but there are telltale gaps. When she asks what group was responsible for it, they shout out "ISIS, Illuminati, Ukraine," their young frame of reference on full display. They only recall the name"Osama Bin Laden" after a subtle hint. I'm both troubled and delighted by how innocent they sound. Troubled only because they don't have the same internalized terror inside them as I do. I can never forget 9/11, and they weren't even around to remember. Words like Taliban and Al Qaeda are as foreign to them as they were to me on September 10, 2001.

Then, one kid remarks about how he saw a plane in the sky yesterday and how scared he was that a terrorist attack might be coming. That's the moment that breaks me, when my posture toward the fifteenth passing of this day shifts, and I feel the lip of my eyelids moisten ever so slightly. In that moment, I recall that horrible Tuesday when I was in this very same school as a 7th grader, sitting in computer class. My classmate Zach had seen something about a plane crash online minutes before we were all told to grab our backpacks, and ushered to the cafeteria to wait to go home. All around us the teachers were mumbling to each other—"twin towers...planes...pentagon." I don't have memories of seeing anyone cry, but I'm sure it happened. I don't remember whether my mom or my dad picked me up, or much about the drive back even.

But I do remember coming home, briefly seeing the news as I walked into my kitchen, still not entirely sure what was happening. The towers were both down by then, so I didn't understand what I was watching on TV—just monstrous smoke covering a city skyline I didn't really recognize. So, I went upstairs to my computer and played a new Star Trek game I had recently gotten—seriously. It was such a strange thing to do, when I think back on it now, but at the time felt completely normal. I have no idea where Afton or Dylan were this whole time. I've forgotten. After an hour of that I got on my bike and pedaled around in the street outside my house, looking up at the sky, expecting to see something—the kind of expectation where you hope nothing happens but you're so expectant that you think your own wondering will mess everything up, and then it will happen right before your eyes. But I remember how empty the sky was. There weren't many clouds, and the world felt silent. I was so scared of planes for years, absolutely convinced any one of them that I could see was on a diving run for the building next to me, or that shortly after there would be men with AK-47s running through the neighborhood opening fire on families. That's what terror did to me then.

(Side note: I nearly wrote that I was clutching my CD player while riding my bike at this time, listening to Jay Z's "The Blueprint," because I used to do that a lot. But that's definitely not how it happened. Because I looked it up, and "The Blueprint" came out on September 11, 2001.)

Desks in the classroom

Desks in the classroom

In 2016, watching a classroom full of 5th graders talk about 9/11, I nearly cried. Later in the day when the kids came back from recess, I helped clear up some of the names and terms with them that had been brought up before. There were a lot of questions: "Who is the Taliban? What's Al Qaeda? What does ISIS mean? Does that mean Iraq and Syria support them? How can people in a group (like ISIS) spread the word about themselves and not get in trouble?" I imagine in a classroom long ago, a teacher stood with a fresh young crop of Baby Boomers and had a similar experience trying to explain Pearl Harbor, and that teacher felt like crying. I imagine its hard for any of these 5th graders to understand why I felt like crying in class today, watching them try to grasp something I experienced myself just down the hall from where they eat lunch everyday.

I don't know if I have a tidy way to wrap this up. I don't know if it's fair to say that 9/11 has anything tidy about it. The terror and the heroism, the resulting wars and political fallout, the lingering issues first responders face, the conspiracy theorists, the missing persons flyers, the concrete snowfall, the footage that plays again and again in memory. There's a time and place for that. It comes around once a year, though we carry it in our consciousness more often than that. Well, most of us do. Today I met twenty four people who don't. I wish they didn't have to grow up and learn how to carry it. I pray their generation never experiences anything like it again. The truth is I can never forget 9/11, and remembering it is important to me in my own special way. It was difficult, but today twenty four 5th graders helped make that remembering a bit more meaningful this time.

Cameron BarnettComment