I was still getting to know the girls at my lunch table, we were all beginning sixth grade together in a new school. An eighth grade teacher on lunch duty escorted my friend, Elizabeth, to the front office. Her mom had called and wanted to let her know that her dad was alright. Elizabeth's dad was in the Marine Corps and had been in New York that day.
We hadn't heard anything from teachers or other students. I had noticed a few students leave school early, but nothing out of the ordinary, though as the day progressed and class sizes shrunk it became more apparent.
When Elizabeth got back from the office she told us that a plane had hit some skyscrapers in New York. None of us knew what the World Trade Center was, none of us had been there, I had never been to New York City. It was completely foreign to me. It wasn't until I got home from school that I found out about the plane that had hit the Pentagon, just twenty-five miles away from my house.
Volleyball tryouts and all other after school activities had been canceled. My mom wasn't home, but she didn't want me to be by myself and had asked her friend to meet me. It wasn't that I wasn't allowed to be home alone, it was that she was nervous. I don't remember the woman's name, but we sat on the couch and watched the footage together. I don't really remember talking to my parents about it. I knew what happened, I had let it set in, but I wasn't scared.
That night everyone in my neighborhood had flags and candles set out on their porches. School had been canceled for the next two days and everyone on my street was outside. While the adults talked amongst themselves, me and a couple of other kids noticed the helicopters flying overhead in regular intervals. We were used to seeing them, it's fairly normal to see one any day anywhere in the DC suburbs, but not as frequently as they were that evening, and for the following months.
The next day's paper included a printed flag for readers to tape in their windows and doors. The candles continued to be lit each evening. The eerie sense of unity persisted well after the paper flags had faded and been thrown away.
I understood what terrorism was, but it wasn't a word that I had heard much before September 11th, I wasn't aware of The Middle East, or what countries it was made up of - I could hardly pass my states quiz in History class. September 11th very abruptly made me aware of a much larger world, one in which one's nationality and religion mattered. I had Muslim friends and classmates from everywhere, and that day didn't make me reconsider their friendship, it wasn't something that anyone cared about at lunch, not at school. They were Americans too, and just as affected as I was.
Of everything everyone seemed to be feeling, the only emotion that had really set in for me was sadness. I was confused. We hadn't done anything, at least nothing twelve year olds are aware of, and the idea that people existed whose intentions were to interrupt my life, who set out each day to conceive new ideas for inflicting fear upon anyone vulnerable enough to accept it, that, that was what I didn't understand. Ten years later there is still no understanding to be had. As long as people remain scared of the unfamiliar, of the foreign, of people in clothing different than our own, with customs traditional to a culture we ignore and bigot, the hatred and fear and terror will persist.