By Rookminie Behari
“Pass the aloo,” my father said to me, motioning with his head to the bowl of steaming potatoes that was beside me. My parents and I were seated in a circle on the floor of our living room, having a traditional Hindu dinner. “And anyway,” my dad said, continuing the conversation he was having with my mother, “I’d elect Giuliani again if I could. He turned New York around, you know?” I pushed the Indian dinner around on my plate, feeling left out of the political conversation my parents were having. The first week of September, 2001 was dominated by the New York City mayoral primaries. While most New Yorkers were thinking ahead to the next leader of the city, I was thinking about the Yankees and their bid for the postseason. The Yankees were going to repeat their 2000 World Series win, I was sure of it. I began to tell my father, a lifelong baseball fan, about the new starting line-up when my mother cut me off and said, “But Bloomberg is a Republican.” My mother’s mentioning of Michael Bloomberg’s party affiliation set off another debate about the relevance of parties versus experience, an issue hot among the city’s politically minded residents.
As the primaries drew closer, I could hardly go a day without hearing my parents discuss candidates, talking heads debate issues on the radio, or my social studies teacher explaining the “larger implications” the election would have on the future of New York. Every newspaper in town was focused on the elections—not that I took a second look at newspapers. My parents were subscribers to and ardent fans of the New York Times, but the most I ever did with the Times was use it to line the bottom of my bunny’s cage. Besides, what did I care about the primaries? There were boys to be sought, makeup to be bought, magazines to be read. At the age of 12, I couldn’t be bothered with the world of news and politics. Those were adult matters, and I was still a child.
The primaries were scheduled for September 11. It was a beautiful day. The sky was a clear blue and was dotted by a few, puffy clouds.
By 7 A.M., my father and I were cruising down the Belt Parkway in our 1996 Mercury Villager minivan, which, conveniently enough, didn’t have a CD player. My father was listening to the radio, specifically Curtis and Kuby, left-leaning talk show hosts, who were discussing the expected voter turnout for the day’s election. “Dad, when are we going to get a CD player in here?” I whined, detesting the commercials and news segments of radio programs. “It’s good to listen to the news in the morning,” he said. “It lets you know what’s going on during the day.” I didn’t argue (normally I would have) because we were close to my junior high school and I would no longer have to endure Kuby’s annoying laugh. As my father pulled up to the curb, I mumbled a weak and insincere “thank you” and left the car without a second glance.
By 8 a.m., I was seated on a bench in the girls’ locker room, lacing up my brand new, white Nike sneakers. I detested having gym so early in the morning because running laps made my hair messy. I was relieved when gym ended an hour later. As I made my way back to the locker room, my hands beginning their attempt to tame my frizzy hair, a girl I did not know tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Did you hear about the Twin Towers?”
By 10 a.m., most of the students had been picked up from school by concerned parents. Those of us who were still there hadn’t been told explicitly what had happened, but rumors—which turned out not to be rumors at all—were spreading like wildfire. The words “attack,” “airplanes,” and “terrorists” were being whispered. I didn’t understand what was going on. I had never heard of any kind of terrorist organization. Why would people want to hurt us? What did these things mean? How could this happen? When the girl in my gym class told me what had happened, I felt violated. I felt as though someone—these terrorists—had taken something away from me: thousands of lives, two New York City icons, and my innocence.
For the rest of the day, my head was in a fog. I did not understand what was happening and I couldn’t come to terms with the rumors. I trudged up four flights of stairs to my seventh period class, English. In the stairwells I could hear a woman crying. There was another rumor being whispered: One of the foreign language teachers had lost her husband.
My English classroom had a beautiful view of the New York City skyline. The first thing I noticed when I entered the room, though, was the beige color of the large shades that had been pulled down over the windows--four columns of beige shade that were covering the brilliant blue sky, the radiant sun, and the awful smoke that was still billowing from the towers’ collapse. My English teacher, a short and usually lively man, sat stoically on his desk as we filed in. After we were seated, a silence permeated the room before he began: “I’m sorry, but this morning…”
When my father pulled up in front of my school, I did not immediately recognize our minivan. The soot and debris had drifted over the Hudson River and had landed on the ocean blue Villager. I climbed into the car, wiping soot off my hand as my father grabbed me and hugged me tightly. “What’s happening?” I managed to say, barely able to breathe because of his tight grasp. My father shook his head and said, “I wish I knew.” After a few moments, I was struck by the silence in the car. “Let’s listen to the radio,” I said quietly, turning the dial and tuning to an AM station. I could feel my dad glance at me. “Yes, that’s a good idea, isn’t it?” he replied.
At home that evening, I opted to watch the news over my regular Nickelodeon afternoon programs. Nestled between my parents, the news came trickling in—the number of lives lost was being projected, the primaries were re-scheduled, and the president was preparing an address. We kept the television on all evening, stepping away only briefly to take phone calls from various family members who worked downtown and who called to say they were okay. I asked my parents questions about things I didn’t understand: Would it ever be safe to fly in an airplane again? Would Rudy Giuliani remain our mayor? And where, exactly, was Afghanistan?
The next morning, I awoke early to learn that school had been cancelled. When I went downstairs for breakfast, instead of finding the Indian meal my mother always made for me before she went to work, I found several newspapers lying on the dining room table with a note. The note was from my parents, who had gone to Ground Zero to assist with rescue efforts. I turned then to the newspapers. Each paper, from the New York Times to the New York Post, had the same image on its front page: the first tower being hit. I sat at the table and began to read each paper’s coverage of the incident. I am ashamed to say that it was the first time I had ever truly read a newspaper, but it satisfied my intense need to know what was happening. Between the news programs on television and the newspapers, I came to learn things I had never known before.
That was two years ago. I am now a sophomore in high school. I am seated in the morgue—a room in the Humanities department that holds all previous issues of our school newspaper, The Classic. I am a news reporter for The Classic, but there are rumors that I am on the short list to become the next news editor. While I secretly beam at the thought of being an editor, at being responsible for providing the students with valuable information, I don’t pay much attention to the gossip. Right now, there is matter at hand that needs my immediate attention: my latest feature article.
I am working on a piece about a student who graduated in 2001 and is now working with teenagers to raise awareness about peace-keeping efforts in Sudan. The genocide in Darfur is a big issue in my school—as a student body, we donate money and clothing; we attend rallies and protests. I know students would be drawn to this human-interest story. There was an article written about him in 2001 that I could use to supplement my more updated story, my editor-in-chief had told me. As I am sifting through the 2001 archive, looking for the article about this former student, I come across the September issue of The Classic. I pull it out of the drawer, not surprised at the image on the front page. Like every newspaper that I remember from the days following the attacks, this one has an image on it that has been seared into the minds of almost every American. The words in the headline are the same words I heard whispered in my seventh grade classroom. Though the image makes my stomach queasy, I run my fingers affectionately over the thin, gray sheets that make up The Classic, remembering how much I detested the feel of newspapers when I was younger.
Just then, the advisor of The Classic, an English teacher, pokes her head into the room. “Did you find the article yet?” she asks. “No,” I say as I begin to read the front-page article, my mind hurtling back to the event that had changed so many lives. “I found something else.”