I remember the cascade of ringing office phones when the first tower collapsed…

My freshman comp students will write about 9/11 today. I have used this free-writing exercise once before, when the 9/11 anniversary coincided with the class schedule. My freshmen—these 2014 high school graduates—were kindergartners on 9/11. Kindergartners. Which makes me feel momentarily old, but also (ghoulishly?) curious to understand how they processed that day, what they remember from the tiny, upturned aperture of the child.

I worked in the Office of Admissions at the University of Minnesota on 9/11. And I remember seeing 9/11 birthdays on student records thereafter, and feeling bad for these kids, whose birthdays had been ruined, and would always be asterisked with those events. Two numbers denoting a day and a month that had been meaningless on September 10th 2001, but would thereafter always be known, much as other days of infamy or glory—March 15, July 4, December 7—had once been simple squares on a calendar. I remember how beautiful that Saint Paul morning was, how I stopped to pet a friendly cat in my apartment parking lot, and thought as I got into my car that this feline affection was surely a good omen for the day. I remember I had no inkling of anything strange until I turned on the radio and heard the instantly-recognizable voice of the morning rock-show deejay—who normally trafficked in nothing more serious than standard crude sports-talk misogyny—say “if this is Bin Laden, we ought to nuke him,” with flinty earnestness. I remember the impulse to turn the car around and go home, but driving to work anyway. I remember the crescendo of office-phones ringing when the first tower fell. I remember forty minutes later when the phones rang again. I remember going outside to smoke a cigarette on my afternoon break, heavy with hours of sorrow, and seeing young college students smiling and joking around and thinking, “How can they be laughing?” They must not know yet—they couldn’t know, nobody who knows could just carry on with their usual jocular buffoonery…” I remember how quiet the skies were—and how the cyclical roar of those two F-16s flying patrol over the Twin Cities was strangely soothing. I remember walking past campus-area apartments at sunset and seeing a group of South Asian students laughing and carrying on in their foreign tongue and I remember thinking “dudes…I wouldn’t be so loud and boisterous tonight—people are going to think the wrong thing” and then being immediately embarrassed and saddened by this awful truth—that for a lot of people on that evening, the sight of South Asian men, or Arabs, or Indians or any dark-skinned men being happy in a foreign dialect might be assumed to be celebrating. I remember that photo-shopped Statue of Liberty, the one with a middle finger instead of a torch, the one with that crude caption: We’re coming, motherfuckers. I remember printing it out and putting it on my cubicle wall. I remember all those posters of the Twin Towers, glinting and gleaming, that suddenly popped up in the poster-shops and music-stores and bookstores that ringed campus, the Twin Towers which had previously just been a couple buildings few people outside of Manhattan ever saw, let alone thought about, but now, suddenly these images were snapped up and put on dorm room and cubicle walls—defiant memorials to a lost vision. I remember when President Bush stood on that pile of rubble with his arm around that fireman and a megaphone in his hand and when he said the people who did this are going to hear from ALL of us pretty soon and the firemen roared and the hair stood up on the back of my neck and for a brief moment I was happy that “W” had won, that he was the president holding that megaphone instead of Gore. I remember that I had just days before devastated my own relationship—that I had hurt my then-partner very badly, and the raw wound filled our apartment with rancor and unease and how even though we both wanted so badly to be held, we wept at opposite ends of the couch. I remember four days of nonstop television coverage, which operated simultaneously as a comforting blanket and an unhelpful fingernail picking at an open wound. I remember that Friday benefit concert, Springsteen singing Rise Up! C’mon RIIIIIIISE UP! I remember that next morning when I turned on the TV and found Saturday morning cartoons, my blanket yanked away, the regularly scheduled programming a declaration that our collective open-grief phase was finished, that we had come to the end of the beginning…

So I go forward with keen interest in what my students will have to say, these amateur adults who were kindergartners on 9/11—knowing that they are the last generation of my students to have any visceral connection to the events of that day, that in a couple years my Freshmen will have been only two or three years old, too young to have memories beyond a vague sense of a parent’s anguish and then in a couple more years they’ll be kids who were born after 9/11, who will have no contact with the day, who will look at those of us who were singed and scarred as I once looked at my grandparents’ generation when they talked about the trauma of Pearl Harbor, struggling to understand beyond the TV soundtrack of history.

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