I overheard my 13-year-old daughter making the most profound statement I’ve heard in a long time. She said, “I flew over the Twin Towers the day before the September 11th terrorist attacks.”
I wanted to jump into her conversation and correct her; she wasn’t even alive when it happened. Then I realized she was there. I was seven months pregnant on the plane.
My husband and I were returning to our home in New York City from a baby shower my family had thrown for me in Chicago. My ankles were swollen and I couldn’t elevate my feet seating in the coach section, near the back of the plane. I was uncomfortable, fat and the baby was moving nonstop.
So when my husband whispered that the towers looked “eerie” and insisted that I sit up and see for myself, I reluctantly squirmed forward to view the chrome and glass buildings glistening in the sun, above the clouds.
“You’ve seen ‘em once, you’ve seen ‘em a thousand times,” I replied. Little did I know I would never see them again.
Twenty-four hours later, the World Trade Center laid in a heap of smoldering rubble, an unholy grave for more than a thousand Americans.
The realization that my daughter owns her embryonic place in this tragedy overwhelms me. This anniversary of the terrorist attacks has gotten me thinking about the stories my kid will one day tell, even the stories that I’d think are all mine.
The memory has once again forced me to accept the haunting words that were passed on to me by a fellow teacher after a bad day, “It happened to them, not you. The kids are the ones who 30 years from now will remember these stories with tears in their eyes.”
The wildest stories we will share as classroom teachers will pale in comparison to the way our students will tell them. It may have seemed like they weren’t listening, thinking, or feeling, but one day they will stand up and say, “Let me tell it. I was there.”
In good times and bad, they will own their presence in our school stories, and they will rewrite these tales with or without our permission. They have a right. It’s our profession, but it’s their lives.
I’ve often said I became a teacher on September 11th because that’s when I finally decided to follow my passion by giving up my career as a journalist and becoming an educator. But I’ve never given much thought about how my daughter’s life changed on that day.
She never had the opportunity to gaze upon the majestic beauty of the Twin Towers or to visit the top deck to get a mile-high view of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Ellis Island. Still, she understands how 24 hours and a different plane determined if she would live or be killed in the womb.
I’m just now realizing history from her perspective, all that she stood to lose. That truth makes my tears for this national tragedy even more painful. And I will never forget.
Marilyn Rhames has taught in district and charter schools in Chicago for the past 11 years and currently serves as alumni support manager at a K-8 charter school. A former New York City reporter, Rhames’ award-winning education commentary is featured in Education Week and on Moody Radio in Chicago.