Sometimes, I think one of the easier ways to define a generation is by their shared memories — their connected moments in history. Those pivotal actions that don’t change just one life, but many. The events that alter, oftentimes, the way a whole group of children sees the world. For my parents’ generation, that pivotal moment was, perhaps, the Kennedy assassination. For mine 9/11. These days, I worry that it’s only a matter of time before the current generation of American children experiences their own life-altering event, the one by which their own world views may be similarly defined.
Events like these, they’re not important merely because of the broader societal implications, but because of the personal ones. My mother, for example, still remembers her elementary school teacher telling the class that the President had been shot. I, too, will never forget the details of 9/11.
September 11, 2001 was towards then beginning of my 4th-grade year. I was just old enough, at nine, to be trusted to wake up all on my own with my clock radio, which I set to wake me up at 6 AM to my dad’s favorite radio station. The morning DJ, between sets of classic rock and traffic reports, was known for an elaborate prank calling program. So when I woke up to detailed descriptions of smoke billowing out of a New York City skyscraper, I thought it was a complicated joke.
It wasn’t until I got dressed, shoved on my pink wire-rimmed glasses, and stumbled downstairs to the sound of the television that I knew something was really wrong.
If I knew anything, by nine, it’s that my parents were newspaper people, through and through. Prior to that day, there was never a time that a weekday morning had been accompanied by noise from the big TV, let alone the panicked tones of a reporter steadily droning over images of noxious, black smoke. Certainly I had never seen a sight like that of my mother, a Motorola flip phone in one hand and the cordless in the other, calling friends and relatives in New York practically nonstop. I was nine, but I wasn’t stupid. I knew that something was very, very wrong.
That morning, my brother and I ate toast on the couch as the news got steadily worse. My father, in a button-up with the sleeves rolled up, suit jacket set aside, forwent the morning commute to bring out his own cell phone, reaching out to family members, colleagues, and friends.
Eventually, it was time for school. For the first time I could remember, my father walked me into class. He stopped my principal on the way, to tell him that they needed to lower the flags to half-mast. He conferred quietly with my teacher, to tell her he might return to take me out of class. He hugged me, and kissed me on the forehead, and told me he wasn’t sure if he was going into work that day, and that I shouldn’t worry. Then he left.
That day in school, we didn’t do much of anything. All of us had picked up on our parents’ anxiety. There was a buzzing, simmering tension, a yearning to be told the unvarnished truth. We were nine, but we weren’t stupid. We were 3,000 miles away, but we didn’t feel safe.
That day, in some ways, defined my generation. I was reminded of it when a friend told me that this year is the first, for many high schools, where 9/11 will be taught as history. Most of this year’s sophomore class wasn’t born yet when the event occurred.
So now we have a new generation, one that will soon be defined by its own collective history. With President Trump at the helm, I worry what their pivotal event will be. Perhaps it has already passed. Maybe 20 years from now, the day no person will have forgotten was the Election Day of Donald J. Trump.
Somehow, though, I don’t think that was it. As our Commander-in-Chief changes his foreign policy based on the pictures he sees on the news, as he finds his humanity not in kindness or compassion, but in military aggression, I don’t think that pivotal event has already passed. I think, as adults, we must be ready to comfort the next generation as they learn, collectively, that while people are predominantly good, bad things happen. We can’t always fix it. Let’s remember that the things we can’t fix can define generations.
Day 96: April 7, 2017