pay it forward and I-STEP

Ten years ago, I was fourteen years old and a freshman at Lawrence Central High School. I was clueless, insecure, yet just narcissistic enough to believe life revolved around me (in my credit, I think most 14-year-olds are this way. . . I think).

We were in ISTEP that week, a standardized test that any kid in Indiana takes at least every two years (or so it seems). Even though my class wasn’t taking it that year, we were still stuffed into an auditorium every morning that week while our other classmates were testing. I remember that morning, our English teacher told us we were going to watch a movie and break into discussion groups afterwards, so we had to pay attention. The movie was Pay It Forward, and about halfway through, my Social Studies teacher came in, turned it off, and said we all needed to go back to our classrooms right away. We shuffled back, probably complaining about the inconvenience of having to move 100 yards, and walked into room just as the second plane hit the World Trade Center. I have to confess to you that before that day, I didn’t know what the World Trade Center was. I remember wanting to ask, but not wanting to look stupid or naïve. Our teachers let us call our parents if we needed, and I called my dad because I thought my uncle was flying that day, who lived in New Jersey.

Then our English teacher, Mrs. Guthrie, told us to just write. We had “Seed Journals,” for our class (which I am still on the hunt for), and she told us that the rest of the morning, we needed to just write. She turned on the television, sat there and stared, and we all wrote. No one resisted or did anything stupid; I think even as selfish 14-year-olds, we knew life wasn’t about us that day. I remember my Biology test being cancelled that afternoon, and going home to mom glued to our television. I remember my dad came over to my mom’s that night, and we spent a few minutes watching the footage together, as a family.

That next year, I joined my high school’s show choir, and we had the opportunity, on the 1-year anniversary, to sing at all kinds of memorial services and events that honored those that lost their lives that day. I think only then did I begin realize the magnitude of what this really meant for our country. I remember my choir director, Mr. Bridgewater, not being able to get through The Battle Hymn of the Republic without lots of tears, and the rest of us sniffling through, as well. We competed in NYC that year, and spent about an hour at Ground Zero. Near the end of our time, Mr. Bridgewater called us together to sing one of his favorite, Song of the Unsung Hero. We knew that moment was significant, but we didn’t get it. We still don’t. But we knew life wasn’t about us.

My sophomore year of high school, I joined an InterFaith club, wanting to know more about Islam, as this event has sparked a lot of curiosity in my little brain. There, I met a few Muslim friends, all with a much different faith than the extremists I heard so much about. As I sat and listened to their stories, their worries and anxieties they faced on a daily basis, I truly learned what having empathy was all about.

I hope one day, when/if I have children, and they ask me where I was on 9/11, that I am able to recall these little memories–things that humanized this day for me. It’s easy to dehumanize and record it as a historical moment, but for many, it was the day that they lost their dad. Or their mom. Or their aunt, uncle, or grandpa. Many lost friends, co-workers, the ability to walk, or the capacity for love.

I remember 9/11.

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