When I was in third grade, the Yankees played the Mets in the 2000 World Series, and this was a big deal. It was an even bigger deal when the Yankees won though. One morning not long after that, my mom informed my younger brother and me that there was no way in hell we were going to school that day -- we were going to see the ticker tape parade in New York City!
At the parade site, it was unsurprisingly rowdy, and so my mom brought us to a quieter place with a wonderful view of the parade and, of course, food. This was the Windows of the World -- the cafe at the 107th floor of the World Trade Center. I will never forget peering out those windows, looking down onto the street. Tiny bodies waving as the Yankees passed by. In that moment, New York felt so small, so simple -- as Norman Rockwell-esque as New York can be. It was like being trapped in one of the souvenir snow globes sold in Times Square. It was a feeling of feeling small in a small world.
A year later, I was sitting in my fourth grade class in Westhampton Beach, New York. The school year had just begun, and in fact, class that day had just begun. In the middle of class, a message on the PA system rang out: It was an announcement for all teachers to report immediately for a mandatory meeting. After what felt like an eternity, my teacher returned tight-lipped with tears in her eyes. She staggered to continue the lesson, fighting back tears, struggling to maintain a facade of normalcy in front of a room full of fourth-graders.
I was always an anxious kid (turned anxious older kid, turned anxious semi-adult), and I immediately realized that we deliberately weren't being told something -- and that meant something was really, really wrong.
Kids soon began leaving in droves, with no explanation. I watched my classmates leave and walk into their parents' cars, thinking to myself, "Well maybe they all have doctors appointments?" There was just no conclusion that made sense to my 9-year-old mind.
And then, I heard my name called over the loudspeaker, being called to the office for "early dismissal." I remember meeting my brother, and then eventually meeting my mom in our truck. We sat in the backseat, backpack-clad and wide-eyed.
"The World Trade Center has been blown off the face of the earth," my mom said bluntly. That's all she had to say. She immediately burst into tears. I can recall two, maybe three times in my life that I've seen my mom cry, but this is one I'll surely never forget.
There was a long silence. And then she told us everything -- that two planes had crashed into the towers, and they had crumbled to the ground. That lots of people had died.
At home, my mom talked nervously, quietly, with my uncle, who worked near the towers at the time. He had caught a late train into the city that morning after making my cousin re-do a homework assignment, and had immediately gone home after hearing the news. Had he gone in earlier -- he might not have come back.
I watched the videos on NBC, ABC, CBS and the like. I saw the towers fall many times. I had nightmares for months and my anxiety worsened. In school, there were stories about relatives of friends who had passed away, because they worked in the buildings or were first responders.
It became clear that the snow globe of the world, of my world, had been irreparably shattered.
A few months after September 11, my mom brought my brother and I back to Ground Zero. Nine years later, as a freshman at NYU, I returned when the Freedom Tower was being built. This same place, nine years removed from the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil, might as well have been two different worlds in two different millennia: One felt distraught and dystopian while the other seemed sturdy and bright. But in both, there was a palpable sense of hope, and I attribute that largely to the unbreakable spirit of New Yorkers (it's true, we are a pretty remarkable breed).
Experiencing something as cataclysmic as 9/11 is something many people never had to experience, let alone as a 9-year-old. I've had conversations with my grandmother, who was about 10 when the attacks on Pearl Harbor happened, and that's the only thing in modern history I can remotely equate it to.
Not only did 9/11 greatly impact me emotionally, it became an intrinsic part of my academic career. It motivated me to look to the past for answers. We couldn't just read history, I thought, we needed to really listen to it, and maybe things like this wouldn't happen. And it's one of the reasons I chose to pursue a degree in history at NYU.
The events of September 11 have also profoundly shaped my professional life as a news writer at MTV News. Rampant Islamophobia didn't just come to an end in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 -- I read about it every day online and see it in action, even in a liberal place like New York City. When I spoke to Ziad Ahmed, a Muslim-American teen who was unfairly placed on the TSA watch list as a child, it enraged and sickened me. I want to tell the stories of Muslim Americans, who every day, continue to shoulder the blame for the crimes of a few zealots. The unfounded hatred of them is something I hate, and it's something I won't be quiet about.
It might sound cheesy, but what I've also discovered about myself is that there's a lot I won't be quiet about when it comes to the world we live in now. I'm sure that living through that dark morning in 2001 has a lot to do with why I'm so passionate about doing my part to help make sure that another class of wide-eyed 4th-graders never has to write a post like this one.