Many people come together every year on 9/11 in remembrance of thousands of people lost on that fateful day, including two people from my school, the Leckie Elementary School in southwest Washington D.C.
Every year since September 11, 2001, I know that I can turn on my television and see some sort of vigil or commemoration taking place just to let people know that their loved ones aren’t forgotten.
I remember everything so vividly, 13 years later.
It was a normal day in the District – D.C., that is. There was typical sunshine on a warm and early September Tuesday. The unwelcoming stench of the Potomac River and the sounds of the airplane departures and arrivals at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport were routine. See, I was a military brat, so I lived on Bolling Air Force Base, which was separated from the airport by the Potomac River. Beautiful views of the Washington Monument and the Capitol made up for all of the other circumstances.
I was so excited to be in Ms. Taylor’s class, although she would be out for the week. She was the nicest sixth grade teacher, aside from Ms. Rudd, whom everyone really liked. She was from Sierra Leone, so she had a pretty strong accent, which at times could be hard to understand, but her smile and generosity made up for that.
The bell rang. We sang our “National Anthem” and listened to the morning announcements over the intercom. Ms. Taylor would be out this week on an educational trip. She took Bernard Brown, one of our 11-year-old classmates, on a four-day National Geographic trip to Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off the California coast. This was her routine at the beginning of every year with one of her highly-recommended rising sixth graders. On this trip, Ms. Taylor and Bernard would be accompanied by teachers and students from two other schools: James Debeuneure and 11-year-old Rodney Dickens from Ketcham Elementary School, as well as Sarah Clark and 11-year-old Asia Cottom from Backus Middle School.
We were getting our day started with our substitute teacher for the week. I can’t recall her name, but I know she was the nicest substitute I had encountered. She took a liking to me, so she was great in my eyes.
Being typical 10- and 11-year-olds, we tried to quietly chatter while we did our classwork, all while hearing the teacher constantly tell us, “Be quiet. No talking.”
Suddenly, there was a loud BOOM and a shaky building for about five seconds. It was unreal. It was quite funny to us at the time. Many of us joked about the possibilities of what was happening. Maybe our class had just sat through our first earthquake. Maybe an airplane landed on the top of the building. We all giggled and got a little out of control while the substitute tried to calm us down.
One teacher, Ms. Robinson, who held her class in a room that was in the front of the building, came to our classroom a little concerned and spoke to the sub about seeing black clouds near the airport. The clouds were nonstop. She believed that maybe it was a building fire. But from what building? She didn’t make a big deal about it for too long. She headed back to continue instructing her sixth-grade class. After we talked about what it could have been, we got back to work.
Soon the intercom began to buzz every five minutes with names of students being asked to come to the office for early dismissal. I was thinking something had to be wrong that all of these students were being picked up early. So where were my parents? I was getting a bit excited thinking that my name would be called soon to leave early, but then I began to get anxious that I would be left at school while all the other children were whisked away.
In the classroom, our sub decided to turn on the television. It was a small television, but it was big enough for us all to see BREAKING NEWS: AMERICA UNDER ATTACK and BREAKING NEWS: PLANE CRASHES INTO WORLD TRADE CENTER.
I was too young to really know what “America Under Attack” meant, but in my mind I was asking how could this possibly happen. Why would someone want to do that? I remember saying to myself, “I just hope Ms. Taylor and Bernard aren’t on one of those planes. God, please just don’t let it be their plane.”
By this time the Pentagon and the World Trade Center’s North and South Towers had been hit. We watched news channels go from coverage in New York to coverage at the Pentagon nearby in Arlington, Va. Our teacher flipped between channels to stay updated. We saw the playback of the planes crash into the World Trade Center. That’s when we all witnessed what an attack of terror really looked like.
The whole classroom, including our teacher, was in a state of shock, amazed at what our eyes just saw in plain view. Most of us were saying, “Oh, my God.” My heart dropped when I saw that plane deliberately crash into the South Tower. Who was on that plane? Were they able to talk to their families before the crash? Who may have been in that office in the South Tower? Did they see the plane coming? I just had so many questions.
Eventually, Mrs. Homesley, the school principal, advised all classes to make their way to the cafeteria. You could see all of the staff and faculty chatting amongst themselves, but their facial expressions said even more.
I finally made it home. My parents didn’t come get me, but my afternoon bus was right at the curb waiting for all the base housing kids to board and travel five minutes down the street. The ride seemed longer than five minutes. The protocol to get on base was much different from what it was that morning. I was anxious to get home to my mom and dad to make sure that they were all right. My mom worked near the Pentagon and my dad, being in the Air Force, worked at the base. There was a big sigh of relief when I got home and knew that at least they were okay.
Wednesday was different. It was so different that I knew something just wasn’t right. It was almost like I knew what people were going to tell us. We came into our classroom, but it was full of teachers and other parents, if I recall correctly, which was so unusual. Someone broke the news to us: “Yesterday, the plane that Ms. Taylor and Bernard were on crashed into the Pentagon.” Everyone sobbed.
I just couldn’t understand. I honestly didn’t know how or what to feel. I just cried. I watched my closest classmates sit next to me and cry like they’d never cried before. This was too much for us. We were only 11-years-old. How could we stomach all of this? All we knew was that someone who was close to us and someone who we couldn’t wait to grow close to were taken away. It was unfair.
I didn’t really get the chance to enjoy the teacher that I looked forward to spending my last year with at Leckie Elementary. I didn’t get the chance to see Bernard in class and have him annoy, argue with and be mean to me just one last time. It was heartbreaking.
We were hurt, collectively. We cried as a class. We wrote down how we felt emotionally as a class. We had counseling sessions as a class. We even acted out of frustration and sadness as a class. The class as a whole just wouldn’t listen to teachers and even started to have confrontations among ourselves. We just got into more and more trouble and had fun activities taken away. Different teachers made it their business to talk to us about our behavior, to try to get us on the right track. But as a result of our hurt, this was how we coped. Imagine the hurt that Bernard’s parents and sister endured. Imagine the hurt Ms. Taylor’s family in Maryland and in Africa had to endure. It was more than words could ever explain.
I don’t need memorials to remember what happened on September 11, 2001. I’m reminded randomly when I ride past Leckie Elementary or when I go to New York and see tall buildings that resemble the World Trade Center or by the teddy bears sent to us from all around the country that I refuse to get rid of.
See also: Recalling the Events of September 11, 2001 and Maryland/s 9/11 Memorial.
Photo by Kassandre Monsanto