The events of September 11 were, at the time, too massive for the young to fully comprehend. Ten years later, the memories are too haunting and engrained in our collective memory to forget.
Ten years ago yesterday, the nation watched in horror and panic as plumes of smoke billowed from the World Trade Center, forever altering the course of the past decade. Many adults can reflect vividly on the before and after of that terror-filled morning.
But for elementary students at the time, it’s difficult to envision life before the four hijacked planes crashed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, claiming over 2,800 lives.
The children at the time of the attacks are now grown — high school and college-aged students, finally able to analyze 9/11 in a way their youth wouldn’t allow.
Victor Baez, a sophomore transfer student at Syracuse University, was a fifth grader at the time of the attacks. He remembers seeing students piling out with parents from his elementary school in Bronx, NY.
“They came to pick me up and I was confused. Everyone was huddled together heading home,” Baez said. “Once we got there, I saw the footage on television and that’s when the whole 9/11 reality started hitting me.”
Right by Baez’ home stands a hill that stares straight into the horizon, where the Empire State building is visible and where the World Trade Center once towered. As a child, Baez said he never got the opportunity to view the trade center from the hill himself.
“It’s kind of astonishing that all these things that are around you — you never notice them and, one day, they’re gone and you’ll never get the chance to notice them,” he said.
On the night following the attacks, Baez’ community gathered at a candle light vigil. At the time, he didn’t understand the moment of silence that accompanied the ceremony. Had Baez been able to grasp the scope of 9/11, he said feelings of “anger” and “sadness” would have overwhelmed him.
In nearby Queens, NY, a scared Peter Orphanides, now a sophomore at SU, was evacuated from his fourth grade classroom on the morning of 9/11.
At the time, the bustling world of business inside the Twin Towers was too far-off for Orphanides to understand. But, even as a child, he remembers staring up into the sky at the pair of statement-making buildings.
“We were all young — all young and ignorant — but we knew these huge buildings in the middle of Manhattan and we all just liked looking at it,” he said.
Azhar Ali, a junior at SU, jumped to an entirely different conclusion when he learned of the attack on American soil. The fifth grader lived across the street from Twin Towers middle school in Middletown, NY and was convinced the middle school was under attack.
“Obviously, if someone’s attacking the school, one way or another my family’s affected. My whole family’s home. I was a mess,” he said.
Ali said it was naivety that helped save him from experiencing the same emotional toll felt by high school and college students at the time.
For Tiara Foster, a then sixteen year-old watching news of the terrorist attacks unfold in her Salem, Oregon home, the impact of 9/11 was far more immediate.
Now a master’s candidate at SU, Foster remembers being moved from shock to sadness when she learned the attacks were intentional.
Foster has lost a friend in Iraq and knows veterans that have fought in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, she said in an email. Six of her friends enlisted in the military in response to the 9/11 attacks after graduating high school in June 2002 or 2003.
Today, Foster studies war rhetoric and public memory, which she said is driven partially by her desire to remind and teach the college-aged generation of that fateful day.
“The trends and framing of 9/11 are very intriguing and should be studied because that is how college-aged people will be informed of 9/11 — by the anniversaries and remembering through stories of people who were old enough when the attacks happened to think about them critically,” she said.
Despite the suffering, destruction and socio-political implications the attacks left in its wake, Baez, the then-fifth grader from the Bronx, can reflect fondly on at least one aspect of the decade-defining day.
“One of the most inspiring things is how that whole week after 9/11, everyone smiled at each other, said ‘hi’ to each other and everyone came together,” he said. “That feeling of being united and resilient kind of stuck with me.”
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