When I woke up this morning, one of the first things I saw was a Facebook post from my friend Andy, a former New Yorker, born and raised. Since he now lives in California, he wrote about how he’s developed a habit over the years of waking up at 5:45 a.m. on the anniversary of 9/11 to watch the rebroadcast of the Twin Towers falling at 8:46 a.m. Eastern Time on MSNBC. It was followed by the hashtag, #neverforget.
His post made me flash back to my own memories of 9/11, which then made me think of all the college students I have taught over the last few years -- the ones who don’t have any recollection of the day because they were far too young. Some were only four or five years old in 2001.
Whenever I try to wrap my brain around this, I start to feel grateful to be the age that I am. Even as horrible as it was, the events on September 11th impacted the entire world, and I feel a sense of pride in being there to have witnessed it. To be able to tell the story of what it was like to learn about things before the invention of smart phones and social media. Back when I was a sophomore in college who was living in the dorms and who wandered into the cafeteria that morning blithely unaware.
I was greeted by half a dozen dorm mates, all trying as best they could to recreate the scene they had witnessed on T.V. only moments earlier. Their eyes were large, their speech was frantic, and their gestures were wild, with one hand representing a Twin Tower and the other representing an air plane.
I sat among them eating cereal, and looking skeptical. Surely they must be exaggerating, or playing a practical joke. Once I returned to my dorm and watched the news cast with my own eyes, I reasoned, I would find they were being overly dramatic. Or even better, I would find that it never even happened since the whole thing seemed so bizarre and implausible.
When I tell this story to my 18-year-old students, I always mention how naive we all were in 2001. Not just me. All of us.
Upon returning to my dorm, my roommate was now awake and watching TV. We learned together that there really were terrorists trying to kill us and that the city of Manhattan looked like an apocalyptic war zone. My friends’ theatrics didn’t do it justice.
Unsure what else to do, I threw on some jeans and flip flops and made a slow, tentative walk to my 8:00 a.m. political science class. Of all subjects, it had to be political science I was headed to.
Poly Sci 100 is considered General Education at Cal State Long Beach, which meant it took place in a lecture hall with hundreds of students. My professor entered the classroom as though she were walking to her death sentence. Her glasses were drooping and her hair looked uncombed.
“This morning, something happened,” she said.
The room was silent. We waited.
“And I . . . I don’t know if our world will ever be the same.”
Her voice gave out and she lowered her head. We waited some more.
“That’s all for today,” she muttered. “Class dismissed.”
An hour later, word went out via mass email that the university had officially shut down for the day.
Everyone that lived through it has their own September 11th story, and sometimes I will admit that I tell mine just to try and prove that I am older and wiser and more experienced than most people think when they meet me.
At first glance, many assume I am 22 years old. Sometimes 24. I am actually a whole decade older than that, and instead of being grateful for my youthful appearance, I sometimes resent it.
Like that time last year when I was teaching college-level writing, and I was approached by a group of male students on campus who were wearing skinny jeans and toting armfuls of film equipment.
“You! You are exactly what we need right now,” one said with quick enthusiasm, gesturing for me to come over. “We’re shooting an episode for my YouTube channel called ‘How to Pick Up a Girl: With One Hand.’ I know it might sound crazy, but if you’ll cool with it, I’ll show you how I can lift----”
“Hold on,” I said, searching for the best way to respond. “Thank you for your offer, and it does sound really fascinating, but it’s also probably not appropriate if I participate.”
He looked at me perplexed. “But why?”
“Because I’m a professor here.”
Oh, if only you could have seen the looks on their poor faces.
Especially since I am 5’3 with a petite body frame. Even on days when I wear high heels and blazers, I still get mistaken for a student. I get invited to sorority rush and carded at every bar I have ever entered. Some days I am grateful for it and many others I want to stand on the rooftops and shout, “I am 34 years old and I am proud of it! I have stories and I remember more things than you think I do!”
I remember what it was like to go through airport metal detectors without needing to remove my shoes. I remember when we used to pick up my dad when he would fly home from a trip and greet him right at the gate -- right as he took that first step off the plane.
I remember studying abroad in 2002 when the euro first became the official currency of Italy and the exchange rate with the dollar was actually higher. This was only six months after 9/11 and I remember being in Rome during Easter, when the major media outlets were all claiming that the Vatican might be bombed during Easter services. I was advised to stay away and to consider adding a Canadian flag emblem to my backpack so as to seem “less American.”
There are other, sillier memories I have too. Like carrying a cell phone the size of a brick during my junior year in high school, and being instructed by my parents that it was strictly to be used in the event of an emergency/car accident.
I remember selling magazine subscriptions, door-to-door, as a school fundraiser and learning to use the telephone book and the Thomas Guide.
I remember the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the great lengths my curious classmates took to procure a copy of the Starr Report online -- without their parents finding out.
Last semester, I taught a unit on public shaming and showed my class a video of Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk on the subject. For my freshman students, this required a lot of back story, as politicians nowadays have sex scandals nearly every other week.
Once again, I have to mention the naivety.
Many students had also never heard of Lewinsky, and even after my explanations, one student still described her in his final essay as being “the woman who had an affair with President Nixon.” I couldn’t help but laugh. In this student’s eyes, Nixon and Clinton were virtually interchangeable. Their names sounded similar; they both had been impeached.
I understood the confusion, but it also gave me all the more reason to want to shout about how I was there. I remember Clinton’s impeachment, his presidency, and his affinity for both jogging and eating at McDonald’s.
I’m not trying to say there’s anything wrong with being young. Youth is awesome, and anyone who has spent more than five minutes in our Botox-obsessed culture would know I’m preaching to the choir when I say this.
But that’s the whole point: There’s nothing wrong with growing older, either.
Sure, it’s not as glamorous and for some, it comes with a number of physical hardships. But one of my favorite Proverbs is 16:31, which says, “Gray hair is a crown of glory.”
I think we forget that a lot. As young people, we forget by not honoring and respecting our elders nearly as much as they deserve. Meanwhile, a lot of our elders run around trying to hide their aging process by whatever means necessary.
But what if we stopped all that for today -- on the 14th anniversary of 9/11 -- and we decided to be proud of whatever age we are, to claim our stories, and to celebrate what we’ve learned, where we’ve come from, and where we are headed.