Tuesday, September 11, 2012


I wasn't living in New Jersey on September 11, 2001.  From my home far away and safe in Nebraska, I watched the horror unfold.  Like many Americans, I was saddened by the tragedy.  It felt personal, in the sense that we were all Americans, but also distant, in the sense that it was hundreds of miles away in a place I hardly knew.  I didn't personally know anyone affected by the tragedy.

Fast forward to August 2002, when I moved to New Jersey for a job.   New York City and the World Trade Towers loom large here, in towns with NYC commuter railroads and people with very personal connections to the city and the events of September 11, 2001.  On the one year anniversary of the attack,  my school had an emotional memorial assembly to mark the day.  I watched respectfully; really more of an observer than a participant.  It was clear to me that while all of the nation was affected by September 11, the people here felt it in a far more personal way.

Today marks 11 years since that awful day.  When my 17 and 18 year old students write of their first political memories, September 11 is by far the most common memory.  They remember being at school that morning when their teachers told them something awful had happened in the city.  Then parents came to take them home and await the return of loved ones who had been in New York, some near the World Trade Towers.  If their own families were safe, they write of other families they know who could not say the same thing.  They have hazy memories of watching images on the television, before parents turned those pictures off and reassured children that they were safe.  Life resumed for these kids, though they have not forgotten the fear and uncertainty of those days.  Those are hard stories to read but they are also term-limited.  In a few years, students who personally remember those dark hours will have graduated.  A new set of political memories will replace them.

That's not to say that September 11 will lose any of its meaning in my world.  In the last few years, I've tried to explain the events of September 11 to JT.  For him, it's personal in a different fashion.  He has two classmates who lost fathers in the attack.  These children, just one year olds on that day, bear a different legacy of the day.  They miss fathers they can't really remember, as painful a memory as I can imagine.  For me, that is the real and enduring sadness of September 11.  It's a story of memories cut short by a cruelty that even today seems unimaginable.

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