Reflecting on that September morning 20 years ago is something I do in solitude. I don’t talk much about it, other than to recall where I was. It had been my dream to attend college in Manhattan. I’d considered a number of schools. Julliard, AMDA, Columbia, Fordham, NYU. In the end I chose Albany University. Far enough from home but not down in the city. I wasn’t ready to transition to NYC just yet though Broadway was my goal at the time. That choice was made in the spring of 2021 when I accepted and submitted everything for Freshman year of College.
My college schedule was vigorous. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings I was in class by 6 am. If you were late for the 6:15 start of English you missed the quiz at the beginning of every class. It was a class I enjoyed. I loved our discussions on poetry the poetry of Sylvia Plath and song lyrics of Ani DiFranco. From that class, which lasted hours, I would race across campus to my music theory class. That class began at 9. On that Tuesday morning I was talking with a girl who’s name I can no longer remember. Another student came in just before the professor and informed the rest of us that they’d heard on Howard Stern that a plane crashed into a building in NYC. Most of us familiar with the shock jock dismissed it as either a fluke or some new scheme of his to shock the world. We continued with the lessons of Music Theory. Another long class, but when it was over I was done for the day. The girl and I walked out of class wondering about what the student had said. The walk across campus to our dorms was strange. People were everywhere but no one was hurrying to classes. A massive TV was set up outside in the quad. I said my goodbyes and went to my dorm room. My roommate was already there with the TV on. It was after 11. They were only showing repeats of the day’s events. By the time I knew that the four planes were hijacked and crashed the entirety of 9/11 had played out. Thousands were dead. The world was in a state of shock and I had gone about my entire morning unaware of the historic tragedy.
The hours after my return to the dorm are still surreal. I had tons of messages on my landline. My mother and family had been trying to reach me all morning. They’d heard reports that one of the planes had flown over Albany when it turned and Albany’s towers are a prominent feature. While we were in no danger, no one really knew that when it was happening.
My computer was slow to connect even on University internet. I had tons more messages there. In the days before cell phones and 5G the only choice was to keep dialing home. I couldn’t get through. The lines were busy. It was too much for my roommate who went off to reflect in solitude. They were replaying the images of the mornings events over and over.
I know when I finally reached my mother she was as hysterical as I felt. But we were safe. The sound of her voice made me cry. I didn’t even realize how terrified I was not being able to reach her until that moment.
In the days after my father would speak of how lucky it was that I chose not to go to school in NYC. He wondered if I could have been lost that day, had I gone, imagining a nightmare scenario where I had time off from class and decided to visit the top of the towers (as I had done in high school just years before). What if I had been there when it happened. What if became a big thing for a lot of people. But he was fearful of losing his daughter and grateful that Albany had been my choice instead of Broadway.
For me 9/11 was all about the aftermath. My mother drove to get me that day. The drive home was eerie. We were mostly silent, her and I, with the radio on listening to the president speak, or news updates. The roads were empty. The few tractor trailers were driving in groups. The sun set without the tell-tale signs of planes crisscrossing the sky. I slept fitful that night, but felt safe at home just weeks after leaving for college. That Tuesday changed me though. When I returned to class I was unfocused, depressed, struggling to connect any more. I attempted suicide and decided to leave school to move back home. I didn’t lose anyone I knew or loved that day, but I lost something else. A sense of security. A belief in the power of good. An understanding of empathy in the world. Hate was all the rage then. Hate for Americans, hate for freedom, hate for terrorists. Hate became the focus and I had too much of that all my life to want to continue with it. So I choose to leave behind my dreams.
The world has changed in those 20 years since, as I have changed. But that day is one that I remember with confusion, regret, fear, and sadness. We all lost something that day. Some paid the price with their lives, others were left to carry the burden. It was a world changed and a paradise lost, and yet I wonder now if we truly learned anything at all.