I've been thinking about this all day. Words, which are usually my friends, are difficult to find on two days every year. The first day is in April. The second day is today. Both are days of senseless tragedy and violence. Both are days that will always be a little rough.
But, most importantly, both are days when I've seen that we are better than we think we are (to borrow a phrase from the wonderful Nikki Giovanni).
On September 11, 2001, I sat in my seventh-grade Algebra I class, trying to solve a problem. Or listening to my teacher. That's not the important part. Everything changed when my Social Studies teacher walked in to our classroom and said that a plane had struck one of the Twin Towers.
I sat there in disbelief - I had been to New York a few months ago, and my family had tired to get to the top of one of the Towers to see the view. It had been cloudy that day, though, so we didn't get the chance. Instead, we went to the below-basement-level food court, and I had a piece of Sbarro pizza.
I didn't think she was telling us the truth - and I still refused to believe it as we filed into her classroom, watching the events unfold on TV. We made it into the room in time to see the second plane hit. And that's when we knew things wouldn't be the same.
I grew up on the coast of Virginia - right by a lot of military bases. My city was on high alert, kids started to get pulled out of school, planes patrolled the skies for I don't even know how long - and the only thing I could focus on was the food court.
That's how I made sense of it all. I was in that Food Court a few months before, people had been in that Food Court when the Towers fell, and - well, for a seventh grader I was terrified to finish the thought. As a grad student now, I'm still terrified to finish the thought.
I remember hearing about the crash in the Pentagon, and the flight of people who managed to overtake their hijackers, crashing in a field in Pennsylvania. I remember panic, fear, confusion, indignation, and even hate. These emotions were on everyone's faces, and are still there for some people.
As a seventh-grader, I learned that terrible, unthinkable things can happen in this world. It's a lesson I've always carried with me, and even now I'm still a mess every September 11th. One year I spent it watching documentaries and footage that the Discovery Channel gathered. I sat on the couch and cried. For hours. Last year I talked about it with my roommates. We all shared our stories, and they helped me get through.
This year, I'm trying to say all of the things that I've held inside for the past 11 years. I've been through the brutal part already, and admittedly, am in and out of tears as I type this. But that's ok, because I'm about to get to the part that gives me hope. Hope for the future, hope for our country, hope for myself.
Because, on this day 11 years ago, everything changed - but not all of the change was bad. For the first time in my life, I knew what it was to be an American. It was more than placing a hand over my heart and saying a pledge every morning. It was more than fireworks every Fourth of July. It was even more than that delicious, gluttonous Thanksgiving dinner.
We were united - if only for a small amount of time. We cast aside all of our differences and cried together, reminisced together, and, eventually, laughed together. It was empowering, it showed me how strong we can be - if we're united. And I'm sad to say that it took 6 more years for me to see that again, when another community that I loved was also touched by tragedy.
When heart-wrenching things happen, people ban together. We are determined not to let them win - whoever they may be. But we must not forget that just because a few people commit a heinous act, that act cannot be attributed to the rest of the people in that same race/ethnicity/religion/country. We've gotten so caught up in the "Us or Them" mentality that it's divided our own country. A country that had shown strength, perseverance, kindness, and love only a few years ago.
I still struggle to understand the events of that day. But I also struggle to understand why terrible, violent acts always seem to be the catalyst for everyone to put aside their differences and realize that we're all people. True, communities get through, they become stronger, and most of the time, stay more united. But if we want to honor those lost that day, I think we need to focus less on any hate that we may still be harboring and focus on love. Love for your family, friends, community, country.
To borrow more words from Nikki Giovanni, from her commencement speech to my own beloved Hokie Nation -
"We are strong and brave and innocent and unafraid. We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be."
So, go out there and be better. Be strong, be brave, be innocent, be unafraid. But, most of all, be the united, compassionate people that I remember from when I was a kid. The kind who showed me that heroic acts weren't just for comic book characters.
The ones who gave me hope on that horrible day.