Growing up, watching television wasn’t part of my family’s morning routine. By the time I got up, showered, made my lunch, ate breakfast and read the comics, it was time to head out the door to school. So, twelve years ago when my mom turned on the television when she got back from dropping my sister off at school, I immediately migrated to the living room because I knew something had happened.
Before September 11, 2001, I had no idea what the World Trade Center was. Yet that day, as the television showed footage of two smoking buildings in New York City, it didn’t matter. As a sophomore in high school, I wanted answers about these buildings, and as the broadcasters tried to make sense of the situation, it was the one thing they couldn’t provide.
We tried to talk about it at school that day, and while some teachers indulged us, most just encouraged us to go about our business as we did every day. It’s hard to experience a tragedy through television because movies and cable regularly show fictional tragedies of a far greater scale. Eventually the line between real and fake blurs, and people become desensitized to what’s actually happening out in the world.
At least that’s what happened to me. I’m not proud to say that beyond the initial fear for my own safety, I was easily able to forget about what was happening on the other side of the country because I had no frame of reference to comprehend it. I was able to move on, because a few weeks post-tragedy the television cameras moved on and my life was once again normal and safe. Many others didn’t have that luxury.
Ten years later, I had the blessing of doing campus ministry at Saint Peter’s College (now University), and my perspective changed. Saint Peter’s is a small Jesuit Catholic institution in Jersey City, New Jersey – just a stone’s throw away from the Hudson River and Manhattan. My first weekend on the East Coast, my Dad and I took the PATH train to the World Trade Center stop and were able to see the construction happening on the Freedom Tower, the site where the World Trade Center towers used to stand. Suddenly, something that happened ten years previous seemed a lot more real.
What really changed me, though, was listening to the stories of colleagues and students as they vividly recounted their version of the events of September 11, 2001. I heard stories of those in elementary school as they looked out over the New York skyline and saw smoke billowing up from a place it wasn’t the day before; I heard from parents who frantically left work and fought traffic because they knew that the only place their kids would be safe was their arms; I heard from priests who tried their best to stay composed as they comforted the people losing their minds because the safety and normalcy of every day life had been shattered. Everyone was affected because everyone knew someone who died in downtown Manhattan that day.
My high school vantage point on the West Coast did not afford me the intimate look at the grief and loss that millions of people felt that day. The oppressive blanket of patriotism that irritated me as it emerged in the days following, I learned instead was a great city trying to be strong enough to support a country that just needed to grieve and cope with a profound loss. The theme of “Never Forget” became a cliché in my world, but it was far from that for the folks of New York and New Jersey. It was a curse and a prayer: “Dear Lord, I want to put this day out of my mind forever, but the memories just won’t erase. And the pain that numbs as time passes never really leaves completely. As you bore your cross, please help me bear this one.”
I am proud of my Angeleno heritage, and wouldn’t change it for the world. But today, I wish to forsake it so that I might stand more closely with my brothers and sisters of New York and New Jersey. I only spent a year there, so I won’t pretend to understand the entirety or complexity of emotions felt on this anniversary, but I have a better idea now than I did 12 years ago. Though I can’t be there with you, know that in Nebraska there’s a little piece of New Jersey in my heart that because of you will Never Forget.
Creighton Center for Service and Justice
The CCSJ blogs are meant to be a place for Creighton students, faculty, staff, alumni/ae, and friends to reflect on their experiences with programs sponsored by the office or related to its mission. The views expressed in these reflections, and all other blogs found on or linked to from this website, are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of Creighton University, the Creighton Center for Service and Justice (CCSJ), or any of the University’s affiliates. The University and the CCSJ are not responsible for the actions, content, accuracy, or opinions expressed in these blogs.