I was in Peggy Smith’s 6th grade Language Arts class at Lincoln Middle School in Lancaster city. I don’t remember a single thing about that school or anyone in it, but I remember everything about that woman in that moment.
She was tall and thin. She had fair white skin and red curly hair that she wore up and little strands fell on the shoulders of her forest green pantsuit.
I remember the moment when a man walked in our class and handed her a paper. She read it to herself, and I watched her jaw drop and then her hand covered her face. She struggled to maintain her composure as she delivered the message to the class. Tears strewn down her face as she reported the news that there was an attack on our country, and both twin towers had been hit by planes. I have been an “adult” my entire life, so while I could not possibly grasp the complexity of this incident; I knew this was big. I knew that the entire world would never be the same.
Minutes later, that man wheeled a tv into our class and we watched in terror as the towers stood in their final moments. And just like that, we finished our class, went to lunch, and about our day.
Soon, kids began leaving and the situation became increasingly real. At about 1pm, I got the notification that my mom was there picking me up. My mother and I don’t have many good moments from that time in my life, but I can still see her standing at the end of that hallway waiting for me. It was the first moment that day that I felt hope of any kind. I had never in my life, been more thankful to see her face.
The very first thing I did when I got home was call my cousin, Ashley. I asked her if she had heard what happened. She was so annoyed with me for talking about it, because obviously she knew. Everyone knew. But what she didn’t know was that I just needed to hear her voice. She was the most important person in my life, and I needed to hear that she was okay. I just wanted to feel like something in the world was okay.
The rest of that day was spent in silence, just watching and waiting and trying to figure it all out. Oddly enough, I didn’t cry through any of this. I watched and I was terrified but I felt numb. I felt like nothing was reality. Like, there was no way this could be happening.
As I laid in bed that night, this confusion continued. I sort of convinced myself that if I just went to sleep, I would wake up and everything would be fixed and we could move on. Then, I looked over at my Tweety Bird alarm clock; 9:11pm. That was the moment that those three numbers were forever engrained in my mind; the moment I lost it.
I was so unbelievably distraught by the idea that people in this world were capable of such evil. I was so young, and I had never seen any kind of violence or war. As far as I was concerned, the world was falling apart in front of my eyes and there was nothing I could do. The fear that I felt in that moment was insurmountable, but for the first time all day; I felt like it was alright to be scared and it was okay to NOT be okay.
That next morning, I woke up before dawn. I crept to the living room and turned on the TV and watched, again, in silence.
In the days, months, and years following; the feelings from that day have stayed with me, as they have stayed with every American. Anyone you talk to has the same vivid memory of that day and those moments. Regardless of our connection to the incident, every single person was affected by that day in a way that has never been seen in our time.
But very soon after, I began to feel something that I also never had felt; American pride.
Seeing the way that people came together after the dust settled was also something that most of us had never seen. I was fixated on watching what was happening, and every day I felt more and more proud to live in a country with such amazing people. I realized, that for every terrible person committing these acts, there were ten thousand Americans with love and kindness in their hearts.
Suddenly, American flags were waving everywhere. You’d drive on the highway and every other car had one flying. Houses and lawns were littered with red, white, and blue and it provided the hope that I think we all needed to begin to move forward. As devastating as that day was, the months after were a really amazing time to be an American.
But somewhere along the way, we lost that. We lost the ability to care for another, and to put differences aside. In the past fifteen years, we have gone from a country united, to one that is literally divided down to the way you feed your children.
We have gone from law enforcement and firefighters being the ultimate American hero, to them being the target of attack.
We have gone from flags lining our streets, to people feeling like they cannot even stand for the National Anthem.
In just fifteen years, we have forgotten what it means to be American.
Today, I challenge you to think back to how you felt fifteen years ago. Think about how badly you wish you could have done something, and how badly you wish you could have taken away someone else’s hurt. Think back to how it felt to come together and see someone for the fellow human being that they were and when the mundane didn’t matter. When the color of someone’s skin was irrelevant; when how much money someone made or whether or not they ate meat were things that you literally gave zero shits about. When being here, in a single moment with other people with the same love in their hearts as you was all that anyone cared about.
On September 11th, 2001 we didn’t have a choice other than to come together. On September 11th, 2016 we do. We have that choice today and every day because we are American. No politician or government regulation is going to bring us together or make our country great. WE, THE PEOPLE are the only ones who can make America a place that we are proud of.
So, be kind. Be present. Be forgiving. Consider what others are going through. Help someone in need. Hold the door. Say thank you. SMILE.
As we once witnessed, all of these things are possible and this country can be an amazing place to be, but it is up to all of us to make it that way. I encourage you to do something nice for someone today, and see how it makes you feel. If you like it (you will!), keep doing it. Even better- do something nice and don’t post about it on social media. Do it for no-one other than yourself and that person.
Once upon a time, this flag was a symbol for something good. Don’t ever forget that.