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All You Really Need to Know MAG
“Good morning to you, de doodle-y do! Good morning, dear Angelaaa. Good morning to you!” Oh, the old wake-up ditty to the tune of happy birthday. Classic. Mom’s unique way of getting us up may seem like a mere jumble of made-up words, but, in a very real way, it encapsulates my merry early days. At the time, it was an invitation to a fresh, shimmering morning.
After primping, polishing, and bundling up, we were ready for the day. Our house became a whirlwind. Dad was off to New York for work, Mom and Little Sister to pre-school, and I hopped on the school bus. Little did I know that when I left our New Jersey home that day I was leaving behind a chunk of my sheltered life.
I can still smell the crisp, delicious air that invited autumn that day, and see the vivid hues beginning to shine in the leaves. I can feel the wind harassing my face, and I can see the faded sky marked with light gray clouds.
Kindergarten was one high-stress class, let me tell you. On this particular day, our task was to color and cut out an alligator. Sounds simple. I remember beginning the project thinking I could handle it, but as the day progressed I was hopelessly wrong. My tension rose with the white noise of other children who’d finished the task and were beginning to play. Why couldn’t I finish? I hung my head in my hands, but before I could become too lost in self-doubt, I noticed a third-grade teacher open the door and poke her head in. The two chatted quietly. As my teacher listened, a question mark became imprinted on her forehead, her eyebrows pointing down as if the other woman was speaking in a foreign language. Then her eyes got wide as the words sank in. She put her hand over her mouth, closed her eyes, and shook her head. The third-grade teacher gave her a hug and looked teary as she left the room. What in the world?
Then things got even weirder. My teacher’s eyes held no confusion; they filled with purpose. She picked up the phone and turned her back to us, but I could hear her tone of voice. My alligator was completely forgotten. On the phone, my teacher was hysterical. My school guardian, whose job it was to protect me, was scared.
Random teachers poked their heads in, and my teacher would just nod and a glance toward us, which told me there was a lot I didn’t know. Then an announcement over the PA system explained we were having a “lockdown,” whatever that meant. I was fine with that, but it meant something different to my teacher. She looked like she really wanted out of here, even more than that time I peed in my pants because my zipper was stuck.
I heard stories. Some kids said planes had accidentally crashed into some big buildings. But why wouldn’t they let us go home? I didn’t understand, and I felt that I needed to. Then some kids started spreading an impossible rumor: that the planes had crashed on purpose. Why? I couldn’t make it add up. I grew impatient. How long do we have to stay here? There was nothing to do except watch my teacher’s scared face.
After forever, I was finally safe in my mom’s car with my two-year-old firecracker of a sister blabbering in my ear. I was so happy to see them, but I didn’t understand why. It wasn’t like school was that different from any other day. Looking out the window at the sky, I saw what I thought was a thick blanket of fog. My mom was quiet during the drive, and her makeup looked funny, like it did after we swam. Her face was the reflection of my teacher’s. But her obvious stress and my confusion were overshadowed by my little sister’s exuberance. “… And they have it on TV! We can watch when we get home, Ang. So weird!” Her cute little lisp and excitement made me believe anything she said. Slowly, the strange feelings I’d had all day dissolved. If it was on TV, it couldn’t be that bad, could it?
“Wait, you recorded it? It sounds … awesome! What is it, like a movie or something?” I blurted. I wondered why the teachers had acted so crazy.
“No, Angela, it’s not awesome,” my mom finally spoke, as we pulled into our driveway. “And we didn’t record it – it’s on every channel.” She let out a breath and realized she had to tell me. She spoke softly, “You know how we can usually see those two really tall buildings from here?”
“Yeah,” I said, injecting a boatload of colorful “Jersey ’tude” into that single word. Of course I knew we could see the Twin Towers from our house.
She lifted me gingerly, a serious look on her face. “Do you see the smoke now?” She pointed and suddenly everything that had happened that day took on a new meaning. How could I have thought it was a rain cloud? Did I really think a rain cloud could be that low, that dark, that dense?
“Oh,” I said softly, feeling very small. Some unrecognizable emotion twisted my stomach and made my heart hurt: guilt, the feeling registers now. All my anxiety that was a mystery to me until this moment made sense. My body had known what was going on before my brain had the means to accept it.
“What … what happened?”
My mom looked deep into my innocent eyes, as hers watered up. She took my hand. “Today, some very bad men flew planes right into a place where a lot of people work.”
“Are they … okay?” I asked.
She hesitated, struggling to make her words so honeysweet that I could hear and still be shielded. But no amount of sugar-coating could cover the poison. Knowing this, she said it straight. “People died today. Lots of good people died.” She paused, and her tears found a way beyond her eyes, trying to detox her system of the poison that was a monster in her, as it is now a monster in me, in anyone that was a part of it. “Your dad …,” she choked. She looked like she did that time we got her to go on a roller coaster and she thought she was going to blow chunks. “We are so lucky he is safe.”
My dad had gone to the World Trade Center that day for work. If he had been running on schedule, he would have died. But he stopped to get a bagel around the corner, heard a commotion, and fled before the city was locked down. And I had felt trapped in my school.
I went inside and watched footage of the burning towers on TV with my father, who was looking more broken than I had ever seen him, and finally I understood.
I’m not sure what exactly it was about that day, but I got it. There was a spark in me, a realization, a bitter sadness, a fear, even though I was so young. I couldn’t have known that they couldn’t build new Twin Towers in a couple days, or a month? How could I have understood that all those people really died, and that everything wasn’t going back to normal the next day? Friends, sisters, brothers, aunts, cousins, uncles, girlfriends, boyfriends, daughters, sons, grandparents … mothers and fathers. These were real people with real ties to other people, people who needed them and loved them and mourned because they were gone. What I did know was my father could have died that day.
Here in Arizona, where I now live, there are no kids whose parents died on 9/11. Some of my friends don’t even understand why we should remember. But at five years old, I knew.
There are things bigger than me, and I still sometimes get caught up in that phase where that gets confusing. But a layer of innocence peeled off, never to return. And I vow never to forget that scar. I saw the smoke from my home. My parents were shaken in a way I have not seen before, or since. They worried that since the terrorists had struck New York, we were next. Waking up the next morning was a true shock to them.
All the little things that matter to me – my hair, my clothes, my theater, and my boyfriend … they still have their place. But those things are a bit smaller. Students at that school lost parents, and I was almost one of them. After that, there isn’t much else that can shake your world so entirely.
They say all you really need to know you learn in kindergarten. How true.