On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was bustling around trying to get my oldest kid ready for a day of first grade when my phone rang. A friend was calling to tell me an airplane had flown into the World Trade Center. I totally didn’t get it. I was like, hm, that’s weird. Hey, I’m about to be late taking my child to school. Can I call you back?
After dropping off the six-year-old, I turned back toward home with my three-year-old still in the car. And I turned on the radio. Oh.
I had been picturing a small two-seater plane with a confused pilot. I know a lot of parents all over the country retrieved their children from school after hearing the news. I’m going to be honest and say it didn’t even occur to me. I guess I felt we were pretty safe here in the midwest.
I spent the day trying to entertain my three-year-old while surreptitiously checking the news via internet. I didn’t know how much he was capable of understanding and didn’t want my growing internal panic to become contagious. My husband and I were emailing back and forth some and decided we’d have to talk to the six-year-old about the events of the day, but would wait until after dinner when we were all together.
We tried to keep dinner as routine as possible, making our kids feel safe. They were behaving pretty normally, with the usual little sibling squabbles and testing us parents on where the line got drawn vis-a-vis the no feet on the table rule. After we were finished, I don’t remember how we distracted the younger one, but my husband and I sat down with Age Six and said we had something to discuss.
My husband started. “We wanted to talk to you about something really bad that happened today.”
Age Six immediately turned red-faced and said, “They started it! They were throwing things at us first! That’s why we picked up the sticks to sword fight them.”
On any other day, I would have been called to the school and informed that my child was one of a group that prompted a new rule about not swinging sticks on the playground. Apparently, there had been a pint-sized gang fight. Later I heard from school staff that many of the students seemed to be picking up on the anxiety of the adults and acting out that day.
But my kid’s response made me realize we didn’t have to talk too much about the terror attacks. Six years old is still young enough for the most important news of the day to be what happened at recess. So we tackled that topic first, discussing what they could have done differently and what some better behavior choices would have been. We touched only briefly on the New York and D.C. attacks, saying that grownups in charge were working to keep people safe, etc., etc. I’m pretty sure the stick fight still loomed larger in my child’s mind.
What I didn’t understand completely in the moment was how our lives would forever be divided into before and after 9-11. How everything would change, often in ways I found difficult to put into words. I have tried to tell my now 20-something kids about what the world was like Before, but I’m not sure I’ve made them see at all.
As far as they could remember, we’d always been at war. There had always been huge flags flying at car dealerships and hotels. The Department of Homeland Security had always existed. “Drone strikes” has always been a phrase in the news. They’ve always had their bags searched when entering entertainment venues. I can list these details, but the thing I can’t describe in the way I want is how different things felt before the attacks.
I know I just sound old and nostalgic when I say, you used to be able to go to the airport for cheap entertainment. You could hang around to watch the planes take off and land. People could walk right up the ticket counter and get on the next flight leaving without any ID or watch lists or anything.
I’m sad that they’ll never know exactly what it is I’m trying to say. Sad that they don’t really remember the pre 9-11 world. Sad that a stick fight on the playground was so far from the biggest news of the day that the teachers forgot to mention it.