When I first joined New Orleans Moms, I thought about the post I would write on the anniversary of 9/11 – and I knew for the 20th anniversary, it would be a big one. Then it was right around the corner, and I didn’t write the post. Then it passed…and I still hadn’t written the post. I knew what was stopping me, but I just couldn’t get over it.
On 9/11 every year, everyone posts something acknowledging the anniversary. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. I didn’t this year. We were in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, and I was helping family with their cleanup, so my mind was elsewhere.
But finally, things have slowed down and it is time for me to get it out.
On September 11, 2001, I was a senior in high school. Located in midtown Manhattan, my classmates and I had just started school a week earlier at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts – AKA the “Fame” School – which has such notable alumni as Jennifer Aniston, Awkwafina, Chaz Bono, Ansel Elgort, and Isaac Mizrahi, to name a few. It’s safe to say we were a motley crew of artistic, talented, creative, and emotional kids, from all over the place, with a range of backgrounds beyond comprehension. Every student had a “major” – vocal music, instrumental music, dance, art, or drama. I had majored in drama my freshman year, but transferred to the vocal department as a sophomore.
By the time I got to my senior year, I had fulfilled almost all of my required core classes, so I was left with seven music classes and one government class. It was during that third period government class, taught by Mr. Vernoff, when we found out what had happened. Our teacher asked us if we knew, at which point one student – white as a ghost – announced that “two kamikaze planes had just crashed into the World Trade Center.”
At that moment, you could have heard a pin drop.
For many of us, it felt like déjà vu. We had been through this before, in 1993, so there was an immediate feeling of “it’s happening again”…but at that point, we had no idea the magnitude of the situation. I remember that evening in 1993 – I was nine, and annoyed because I wanted to watch TGIF on TV, and couldn’t because it was all news coverage about the bombing. A few years later, I remember the mother of a classmate of my brother not using an elevator, because she had been in a smoke-filled elevator at the WTC when it was bombed and avoided them at all costs.
By that point, most of us had cell phones, but almost none of them worked. Each classroom had a phone in it with a special code that “only the teachers knew” to dial out. I went to a teacher and said “Mr. Hamilton, I know the code – can I please call my parents?” “Of COURSE.”
“Mom. I’m at school. I’m okay. I don’t know what’s happening, but my phone isn’t working so I’m calling you from the school phone. I will call you when I can. I love you.” My mom, a teacher at the time, was watching the action from her classroom window in Queens, knowing her youngest child was closer to the towers than she was to her.
“Dad. I’m at school. I’m okay. I don’t know what’s happening, but my phone isn’t working so I’m calling you from the school phone. I will call you when I can. I love you.” My dad is an interpreter for the New York State Supreme Court in Queens – a government building filled with security – watching the same coverage I was, also knowing his daughter was closer to the towers than she was to him.
My parents saved those voicemails for a very long time after that day. It was hours before I actually spoke to them.
A teacher rolled a TV cart into the chorus room and we all watched in horror as one of the biggest markers of our city – our twin towers – had smoke billowing from the impact points. We heard about the Pentagon, and the crash in Pennsylvania, and imagined this being the end of our lives. We watched in silence as the towers collapsed. Students cried, imagining their parents in that area, unsure if they’d gotten to work yet. Others cried because they knew they’d lost a loved one – but were praying that maybe, just maybe, they’d be one of those “near-misses” you hear about now. People who missed a flight that should’ve crashed, or missed a train that would’ve gotten them to work on time to be on the 93rd floor at 8:46am. Some had answered prayers, others did not.
So there we sat and waited. And wondered.
Would we be stuck at school? If so, for how long? Would we ever be able to come back? What about the trains? Was this the start of World War 3? What would our lives be like after this? Was this the end of the world? Would there be a draft, and suddenly all of our seniors would be at war as soon as they turned 18?
Talks of running off to Canada, or getting married, or other draft-dodging tactics were discussed during these terrifying hours – and over AOL Instant Messenger in the days and weeks that followed. To be fair, we were a bunch of dramatic teenagers, so our minds went WILD with possibilities, no matter how outlandish. Fast forward a couple of hours, and parents were beginning to show up to get their kids. My high school sweetheart and his brother were picked up by a relative, and we had a heartfelt goodbye because I couldn’t go with them.
They let us out of school around 3pm, and my best friend at the time and I walked the couple of miles to her cousin’s apartment, because we didn’t know if or how we could get home on the train at that point. We hung out there for a couple of hours, then decided it was time to try and get home. My father had tried to come get me, but there were no inbound roads or trains into Manhattan. You could get out, but there was no way to get in.
Our parents were powerless, agonizing over the fact that they had no choice but to let their teenage daughters ride three separate trains for 45 minutes to get home.
We normally took different trains, but hers wasn’t running, so she was going to come back with me so my dad could drive her home. Phones started working again, and I got a voicemail from my uncle in Costa Rica – “Laura, are you okay? Is your family okay? Please call Costa Rica!” He’d tried to call us all but again, phone issues stopped us from making and receiving calls.
On a normal day at 5:30pm, we would barely have been able to get around without constantly running into people. That day, we grabbed some food (almost everything was closed except for a lone McDonald’s near 34th street), got on a nearly empty train car, and sat down to eat it in silence. The passengers all just sat there, some crying, others staring off. We all looked at each other in some sort of bizarre way – simultaneously stricken with grief, fear, and solidarity. We didn’t know what was happening but at that moment, we were together.
The subway is a crazy place, but we knew that if there was a problem, we would find a way to protect each other. We were New Yorkers.
My dad picked us up from the train station, hugged us, and we started the drive to her house. There was an ice cream shop on the way there, and my dad said “You know what? We need something sweet.” So we got some ice cream before dropping her off. We sat in silence.
The next day, school was cancelled and I went to her house again to hang out. On the way there, I was stopped at a light and looked over at the car next to me, where a man had on an American flag hat, and was blasting “God Bless the USA” from his open windows. We just looked at each other. He said “How are you?” A tear fell, and I just sort of nodded. “You are going to be okay. We are going to be okay.” Again, I nodded. We were New Yorkers. Yes, we can be a bunch of tough-talking, hardened, street-smart people – but we stood together that day. Nothing else mattered. We didn’t know each other, but we had the memory of a shared experience that would bind us together forever.
Most of us stayed home the rest of the week, only to come back on Monday still pale and reeling from our experiences. Everyone knew who had survived the attacks by now, so we were exchanging sympathetic words with one another, the noticeable absence of our friends who had lost loved ones hanging over our heads. It didn’t take long for us to get back to our “new normal,” but it was an eerie feeling seeing hundreds of kids who were normally loud, boisterous, and active, sitting quietly and barely expressing ourselves.
No, we didn’t run from the smoke or flying debris. No, we didn’t see people jumping from the towers like students at other schools had. No, I didn’t walk over any bridges, covered in dust and debris. But we were just a bunch of kids, trying to mentally navigate our way through one of the biggest years of our lives to date – it was our senior year! – having gone through such a horrific ordeal.
A month later, we had a memorial concert. I don’t remember what our Senior Chorus sang, but I will always remember that our Gospel Chorus sang a piece called “Total Praise,” by Richard Smallwood. I still sing it to myself sometimes.
A few weeks later, after another school concert, some friends and I went out to eat. We drove through Times Square, headed towards lower Manhattan, when we were hit with a smell. I wasn’t sure what it was and we were commenting on it, until a friend said “You know what that is? It’s the World Trade Center.” Again – silent, palpable grief. Those same friends were finding debris from the attack near their homes, which were miles from the towers.
I didn’t really come to terms with that day until a year later.
Just a few weeks into my first year of college, I walked into the 9/11 memorial concert at The Boston Conservatory as a brand new freshman. My RA at the time, Tracy – knowing I was from NYC – put her hand on my shoulder and said “How are you, Laura?” And I just looked down. Tears fell from my eyes and didn’t stop. I watched the concert, crying in silence. Alysha Umphress (then a college student, now a Broadway actress) sang You’ll Never Walk Alone from Carousel. That was moving, but nothing compared to the dancer who performed to The Feather Theme from Forrest Gump, ending in a salute. I left the concert with a very swollen face. Our dorm met that evening, crying and exchanging stories. They crowded around me in support of the weeping girl they barely knew. I finally felt like I’d come to terms with my grief and experience. I shed a couple of tears on the second anniversary, but I genuinely felt like I had moved past it.
I had an aunt living in New York at the time, and she wanted to go see the site. I didn’t want to go, but my mom told me to just go take a glance. The city was still wild and filled with police, firefighters, and construction sites. I dropped them off, then looped around to pick them up and go walk down there myself. I had a bag of conversation hearts, and was stopped at a light. My window was down, and a police officer and I smiled at each other. I held out the bag and offered them to him, and he politely declined. These small memories are the ones that stick with me, two decades later. I did walk down, take a glance at the massive, smoldering, debris-filled crater, then turned around and walked away. I remember it like it was yesterday, but I wish I didn’t.
Years later, my best friend and I went to the site on a whim, on the anniversary. This was back when the memorial was filled with photos and information mounted on chain-link fences surrounding the site – nothing permanent had been built yet. No tears were shed, but more healing was done. The memorial has since been completed, but it was after I moved to Louisiana so I haven’t been back. One day I will go.
On the 9th anniversary, I went out with some friends, including one from high school. At first, we weren’t paying much attention to the date, but then he mentioned someone getting testy with him at a store earlier that day, and he just responded with “Dude, don’t do this right now. Not on 9/11.” It was still there for us.
On the tenth anniversary, I flew to meet my then-boyfriend, now-husband, since he was in Louisiana and I was still in New York. People thought I was crazy for flying that day, but love makes you do crazy things sometimes, right? There was a memorial on TV, and it was on in the background. When the National Anthem started, I just looked down and shed a few silent tears.
Here we are twenty years and one month later.
I don’t think about it daily, or weekly. I think of it on the anniversary, and occasionally while reminiscing. It’s one of those things like Katrina (and now Ida) – mononymous, and always eliciting a reaction – and as soon as someone finds out I’m from New York, I’m inevitably asked if I was there on 9/11. I typically respond with “Yep, I was in midtown Manhattan,” and am met with wide eyes. It never fails to remind me of that day, down to the most minute details.
This was before the dawn of the hashtag. We couldn’t be #NYCstrong or #911survivors. It was before social media was a way to communicate and ensure safety. In a way it was good, because the rumors couldn’t spread as quickly – but the solidarity that social media can bring was definitely missed.
9/11 defined a generation. Everyone knows where they were when the planes hit. It just happens to be that I was in the city. I guess, in the big picture, nothing “happened” to me – but looking at as a trauma competition doesn’t help anyone. I know multiple people who were far closer to the disaster area than I was, who watched on as people jumped from the towers. But just because some people’s experiences were worse than others, doesn’t negate anyone’s pain. We are all allowed to grieve in our own way.
The solidarity is what I try to remember most of all, and bring to my daily life. That feeling that we would survive it, that we would pull through. That no matter what, we would rebuild what was broken, both our city and what was inside of us. I don’t really have friends from high school outside of being connected on social media, but there’s definitely a feeling that we all just, sort of, *know* about 9/11. It ties us together.
So, where are we now? Well, as all LaGuardia alumni are and always will be – we are musicians, artists, dancers, actors, choreographers, educators, choral directors, non-profit founders, directors, sales professionals (like me!), doctors, lawyers, and the list goes on. Some of our classmates are no longer with us, but their memories live on.
One day, I will tell my children about 9/11, and my experience. At the tender age of 8, I’d like to preserve their innocence as long as I can. But I will stress to them that just like my parents did, their father and I will always do all we can to keep them safe. And that joining together with others can create a wonderful feeling of strength and unity through difficult things. Solidarity. Of all the awful things that happened on that day, I choose to think of this, instead of the trauma. We were New Yorkers.