This could be one of those generational things perhaps, but I think it's more in the way of a universal matter of compassion, awareness and plain shock that transcends any era.
It's a simple question really, but riveting in its directness - do you remember where you were when you heard about the 9/11 attacks?
Sept. 11, 2001 - a day containing events so unimaginable, they still defy comprehension.
I was teaching sixth grade at Conyers Middle School that morning; the first block of classes had just begun. As first period was my planning time, I was en route to the cafeteria for some much-needed coffee.
A classroom door burst open, and a middle-aged, female math teacher emerged and slumped up against the hallway wall, sobbing. I went over to see if I could help, but she looked up, wide-eyed, exclaiming, "Haven't you heard? We've been attacked! It's on CNN."
Eschewing coffee, I hustled back to my classroom and turned on the news. An hour later, when my first class arrived, I was still glued there, unable to break away from the unbelievable events. I kept referencing my life experience as I tried to comprehend the TV pictures, weighing common sense against the sometimes ignorant comments made by reporters who had no working knowledge of airline procedures and controlled air space. Airliners just don't fly into skyscrapers.
One of the Twin Towers collapsed, followed by the other. There were pictures of the Pentagon, and news that a 757 had crashed into it. A plane was missing over Pennsylvania, and the FAA grounded all non-military flights in American airspace.
The principal came on over the loudspeaker system, telling teachers to turn off their televisions. What? Are you kidding me? Not today, big boy. My kids were riveted, behaving better than they normally did. On that terrible day, the social studies communion in the classroom was a special thing, as we were all learning it and living it together.
Normally in a middle school social studies classroom, the kids don't want the teacher to even remotely think they care about what the adult has to say.
But on that day, the kids knew I knew more about what was going on than they did, and they wanted to know what I knew. So we shared some of those magical times teachers live for, when kids want to discuss real life and stuff that really matters.
About lunch time, the airline called and told me not to report to work for the night shift. They were parking planes everywhere a spot was available at Hartsfield International, as all flights were grounded, and were limiting access to the world's busiest commercial airport. Just call in tomorrow, they said, and we'll play this thing out one day at a time.
During the day, I told my classes of growing up and hearing my parents talk of where they were one Sunday afternoon, Dec. 7, 1941, when they received news that a place many had never heard of had been attacked by the Japanese. It was about 1 p.m. on the east coast of America when that attack occurred; both of my parents' families were gathered around their family radios listening to a variety show when they heard about Pearl Harbor.
As a kid, I didn't quite grasp why my parents made such a big deal about where they were when they heard the news. When I was 12, though, it was brought home to me as I sat in a social studies class on Nov. 22, 1963. Our principal announced that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, and asked us all to say a silent prayer for him.
My teacher, Mrs. Taylor, put her head down on her desk and started softly crying. It was, and remains, a surreal moment in time for me. A little while later the principal told us that our president - the young guy who played touch football on the White House lawn with his family - was dead. And the whole world just sort of turned upside down.
Later that evening, I talked to my parents and told them that I realized now what the big deal was about knowing where they were when they heard about the Pearl Harbor attack. I didn't think I'd ever forget being a seventh grader in Mrs. Taylor's classroom the day JFK was assassinated, much less that 38 years later I'd be teaching sixth graders in Conyers on a day when airliners flew into skyscrapers.
It's peculiar the way catastrophe changes the way you think, isn't it? Over the intervening years I've grown impatient with people and things which exhibit a lack of respect for life, having learned again on 9/11 just how capricious this life of ours is. I think, still, on the innocent folks who went to work early that September morn to beat rush hour, or maybe just to enjoy a cup of coffee atop the World Trade Center as they watched the sun rise over the Hudson.
Mostly, though, as a way to honor the memory of that day, I've become focused on the last verse of our National Anthem. We sing the first verse, but more and more I'm thinking we need to sing the last one, for it answers the question put forth by Francis Scott Key in the first:
"Oh, thus be it ever when free men shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation!
Blest with vict'ry and peace,
May the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Pow'r that hath made
And preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must,
When our cause it is just,
And this be our motto:
'In God is our trust!'
And the Star-Spangled Banner
In triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free
And the home of the brave!"
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.