Before the devastation that would change life as we know it, September 11, 2001, was an average day in Ms. T's fifth grade class in Washington, D.C. We, a group of rowdy 10 year olds, would soon settle down to morning meeting and a day filled with fractions and grammar review.
Shortly after 9:00 a.m. a somber intercom announcement by our principal cut through our chatter. There had been an attack on the World Trade Center and we were all being sent home immediately. We didn't understand what was happening. Few of us even knew what the World Trade Center was. But the situation became clearer as one of my classmates sobbed, fearing that her mother was close to the towers, and tears ran down my teacher's red, puffy face as she tried to no avail to call her parents. "We're gonna be OK, right?" she said with a strained smile. I didn't know what to say. I returned her one-armed hug before being whisked away to the daycare center where my mom worked.
A box TV on a cart was rolled into the kitchen of the daycare center, where staff watched in horror. The children were unaware of the chaos and and played in their classrooms while anxious teachers distracted them. One woman read to a baby who was still in the kitchen while pillars of smoke rose on every major news network behind them.
My dad came to check on me and my mom. I was grateful for his presence, knowing that some of my school friends were still agonizing about their parents' whereabouts. I clung to my big, strong father who towered above me at over six feet tall. He had been faced with many emergencies as a police officer, but always remained calm and collected. He would know what to do. I patted him on the arm. "Dad, we're safe, right?" "Dad, they can't attack us, right?" "Right," he said unconvincingly, his eyes never averting from the destruction on screen. He could stop a robbery or break up a fight, but we were all now faced with bad guys even my dad couldn't bring to justice. My parents seriously discussed leaving D.C., just a stone's throw away from the Pentagon.
I went home and curled up on my mom's bed with the lunch I would have eaten that afternoon in the cafeteria on what was supposed to be a perfectly unremarkable day. I turned the TV to Barney and didn't bother changing the channel. I had long outgrown the big purple dinosaur, but his goofiness wrapped around me like a security blanket as I munched cold noodles from my lunchbox. I longed for answers nobody could give me -- not my teacher nor my parents.
In the days that followed adults tried to explain as best as they could and soften the blow of 9/11.The house in our neighborhood famous for turning terrifying every Halloween sported a much friendlier Harry Potter facade that year. We returned to the same classroom where we first learned of the attacks and discussed our feelings. We never came to a satisfying conclusion and we were still burdened with uncertainty, but talking it out gave us some comfort. Most importantly, my classmate and teacher had both found their families safe and unharmed.
It's a heartbreaking thought that we can't always assuredly tell our children everything will be OK, and it's an experience many parents and caretakers faced on September 11, 2001. For me, it marked the first time in my childhood that I realized people as wise as my parents could be at a total loss, just like so many children were that day. It was a turning point in my life to see that no matter our age, there are some situations that leave us bewildered. The knowledge that grownups can't fix everything is a sad fact all children must face. I just wish it hadn't been under such tragic circumstances.
Image: little upset girl hugged with her grandmother via Shutterstock by Cherry-Merry