I was teaching on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. It was a normal morning, until it wasn’t.
In the teacher’s lounge early in the a.m., I heard the first of it. By the time school started, both towers in New York and the Pentagon had been hit, Flight 93 had crashed, the South Tower had fallen, and the North Tower had started to collapse.
My fifteen-year-old students were, in a word, confused. There was high emotion, anger, but mostly, there was disbelief. Think about how you felt that morning, waking up to terror.
We turned on the TV but the images were unreal. Far away.
Early in the morning the news was reporting that Al Qaeda was responsible. I could explain the word “terrorist,” for what it meant at the time. My students could study maps and internet pages for what “facts” we could find. I explained about the conflict of the Middle East in recent history, from the 1960’s on, something we hadn’t covered in World History at the start of school.
And then afterward, there were so many questions about who we should hate, and who the enemy was. Were the Arabs the enemy? Were the Muslims? What was the difference? I could explain that, at least.
Sitting in class with students in the East Bay Area, it was easy to point out that there was no race or religion that was to blame. These were our classmates, our friends. Our people.
It’s easier when diversity is right in front of you. It must be harder when your world is smaller, because that night, when I went home and watched TV, I saw fear. I saw people blaming Arabs for the attack. I heard that Muslims, one and all, were out to get us.
Being a history lover and, you know, a human, I was alarmed. Similar sentiments caused the Japanese internment in the 1940s, a great stain on the canvas of American history. On a more extreme and terrifying level, I had read similar justifications for The Holocaust.
So I talked about it with my friends, and my family, and my students. Some listened, others didn’t, but it brought me back, as questions always do, to history. In the chaos that was Ellis Island and mass immigration, one artist was able to capture a critical sentiment in a poem:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
These are my people. And unless you are a descendant of a native, you are my people, too. I don’t know much about my ancestors, but guaranteed they were lucky to get across from whence they came, thrilled to work, happy to have a chance.
Recall, Americans, that regardless of your origin, you are an immigrant. You are the result of someone risking life and limb to become part of this great country of ours.
So, on the tenth anniversary of the attacks, I remember the fallen and the heroes of that day. I also remember that our nation is stronger because of its diversity. Let us not forget that in the days after 9/11 there was cooperation and patriotism, but there was also confusion and fear. We have the freedom to honor each other for our differences every day. Let us not forget.