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It smelled like doughnuts, the glazed kind to be exact. School started late that year and even though it was six days after my ninth birthday I insisted that I bring something in for my class because, well, everyone did. I don’t remember what brand of doughnuts they were or what they tasted like. All I remember was that I was eating doughnuts when it happened.
Of course, I didn’t know that until later. It was a normal day for us little fourth graders, completely and utterly normal. It was snack time, the perfect time for a birthday doughnut party. The classroom walls were lined with happy posters and inspirational phrases. It was humid, even the steady air conditioning couldn’t hide that. But still, we sat at our desks chatting casually, munching on our glazed doughnuts, with not a care in the world. We had no idea.
My father came barrelling through the classroom doorway, and when I say barrelling, I mean swung the heavy, blue, classroom door open at lightning speed and entered the room abruptly. The class went silent; teachers exchanged glances; kids looked up, momentarily distracted from their tasty morning snack. My father looked out of breath, like he had been running, like some horrible green three-eyed monster had been chasing him. But most of all, he looked scared.
He nodded to the teachers and came up to my desk. “We’re going home” he said. He was breathing hard, almost out of breathe. I must have looked confused because he continued. “There’s been a change of plans.”
To a mind of a fourth grader one can only imagine these statements were baffling. Unless it was a snow day, what else would one do on a school day? Go home? But why? Questions formed in my head faster than you could say “trouble.” Why would I leave school? This was where all my friends were. And surely my father didn’t expect me to play with my four year old brother the rest of the day.
I managed to convince my father that he should at least let me finish my doughnut. After all, it was my school birthday snack. I couldn’t just leave in the middle of that. My father informed me he would be in the office waiting for me; he just had a few words to say to the vice-principal since the principal wasn’t at school today.
The ordeal was forgotten as soon as my father exited the classroom. My little friends and I went back to chatting and chomping on our glazed doughnuts. The teachers looked worried, but that didn’t really matter to me. Let them worry, I thought, they’re teachers. They’re grown-ups! Grown-ups are always much too serious.
But as I finished my sugary treat the teachers reminded me that I had to go to the office to meet my father. Questions filled my mind once again as I collected my books and put them into my backpack. What was going on?
The office was filled with people, even more people than usual. As soon as I entered the room the radio, which was playing, was shut off. Very quickly, I noticed. I searched for my dad, found him, and informed him that I was ready to go. We slowly walked down the stairs to the main floor of the building and prepared to exit the school.
I have a vivid recollection of what happened next. It’s the part of the day that I remember best, which is odd. It’s not like it was a huge deal -- at least not as huge as what caused all of the commotion. My friend’s mother was entering the school building looking just as concerned as my father had (and still did). It confused me even more. I have the distinct memory of thinking that it was rather peculiar that one of my friends was getting picked up at the same time I was. And at such a strange time of day too! We’d hardly been in school for one hour. As we exited the building and started to walk down the city block I noticed a group of parents huddling together talking. What was going on? What had happened?
I imposed the question upon my father and he told me to keep walking and he would tell me what had happened when we got a little further away. Something about if other kids came out their parents might not want them to know right away. We walked in silence.
We passed people crowded around cars listening to the radio or around shops that sold televisions. We walked by buses packed with people stopping at a stop and letting everyone off. Besides the occasional bus there were no automobiles on the street -- no little cars, no stretch limos, no minivans, not even bicycles. The regular sound of the subway moving underground from station to station was missing. People had their cell phones out dialling and re-dialling telephone numbers but repeatedly not getting through. No one had service. Everyone was petrified.
That’s when my father told me. He informed me what happened, and even though I was pretty sure he would never lie to me, I had trouble believing him. I didn’t understand how big it was, how horrible. To be honest my first thought was that now I would have something of interest to put down in my journal. It’s awful, but true. I still have the journal, actually. Somewhere I a box there is a floppy notebook in which there is a page that I told the world what had happened. I had even drawn a picture and a sad face with my spiffy nine year old art skills.
It still didn’t click, and it wouldn’t -- not until many months later. I guess I just didn’t fully understand what had happened. When my father and I completed our long, strange walk home to our apartment, my four year old brother shared his theory that the pilot made a mistake and lost control of the airplane. My parents exchanged looks. Of course, he was much too young to understand. But so I was, I think. But at least I understood it wasn’t a mistake. It was 100% on purpose.
From my family’s apartment on the upper west side I could see the smoke and the ashes. It was hard to breathe.
It smelled like doughnuts -- the glazed kind to be exact. I still hadn’t washed my hands. As I wrote that journal entry my hands stuck to the pencil and to the notebook pages. It was now the afternoon of September 11th, 2001 in New York City and it was anything but a normal day for a little fourth grader like myself.