I woke up to the sound of my alarm clock. Its blaring noise always made my ears bleed as it screamed at me to start my day. With my eyes half open, I shuffled down the ladder of my wooden bunk bed. I was still in summer mode and not excited for another day of third grade.
My mornings typically went like this:
- Brush teeth.
- Make lunch (usually pb&j’s).
- Get dressed.
Kiss my still-sleeping mom goodbye.
But something different happened that day.
My mom was already awake. I could hear the tv on in her room. It was unusual for her to be up so early as she worked nights. I remember feeling worried. She told me my Yijah (grandma in Thai), who lived in New Jersey, had called her with news — one of the twin towers had been hit by a plane.
My mother and I plopped down in front of the tv as we watched the chaos unfold. It didn’t matter what channel, it was on every channel. I watched people jump out of the flaming towers. I watched the second tower get hit. My mother’s fingers delicately parted and combed my unruly curly hair as we watched hundreds of people die in real time. I don’t think I blinked once. My mom still kept doing my hair. She told me I had to still go to school.
A decade later, she explained to me that she thought I’d be safest at my school. That if the country was under attack, they’d make sure the children were safe first. I didn’t understand that back then.
Off I went. I walked to my neighbor’s, who doubled as my babysitter, house where I would pick up her two younger daughters every morning on my way to the bus stop. The instant I walked in the door I told her to turn on the TV. She asked no questions. Together, we watched the twin towers crumble to the ground. I was 8.
My elementary school was eerily quiet. The faculty gathered us all in the auditorium. They delicately explained to us what what happening. I don’t remember what they said. I just remember feeling empty and numb. Although everything was happening on the other side of the country — no one knew what was next: Los Angeles? Seattle? San Francisco? Hundreds of small children suddenly realized in one morning that there were grown-ups out there willing to hurt people. People like us. People like our parents. As a parent, I hope my son never learns this truth like I did that morning. The image of the towers burning and crumbling replayed in my mind for weeks. The look on the New Yorkers’ faces. The TV anchors’ faces.
I had been in those towers recently.
I had visited New York a couple of times prior to 9/11. I saw broadway shows. Rode in a horse carriage (something I’d never do now, of course). Ate deli sandwiches. Smelled the sweet foul odor of trash bags left out on the street for morning pick up. I stared up at towering, all-encompassing skyscrapers. I leaned against the window plane looking out at Manhattan in the observing deck of one of the twin towers. There might have been a small child doing that exact same thing when the first plane hit.
No adult could explain 9/11 to an eight-year-old. How do you explain that kind of evil to a child? You can’t.
That night when my dad tucked me into bed, I knew in my heart that I’d never be the same. That the world was actually not my friend. That some people were cruel. That my loved ones could be taken at any time, at any place. Over the past 17 years, I’ve had to come to terms with what happened that day. My palms still sweat when I see someone act strangely on an airplane. My heart rate rises when I am in the middle of large crowds.
The people who decided to take thousands of lives that day have not won. I have been back to New York over ten times since that fateful day. I’ve stared down into the reflection pools knowing that many years ago, I stood amongst the clouds looking over the greatest city in the world. I’ve traveled. I’ve spread peace. I’ve loved those who are different from me.
17 years ago, I learned that the world needed a better tomorrow and that I, as a child and therefore the future, was essential in making that happen. For you, for me, and for all American people.