Where Were You?


It’s been 14 years since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. When people look back on September 11th, a dozen years ago, most don’t remember anything happy. They remember the devastation, the loss, the heartbreak. And I remember that, too–but what I remember the most is falling for a boy.

I was 18, and I was a brand new freshman at a small college outside of Atlanta. I was still getting used to my new life, and I hadn’t slept well, so I put on a yellow shirt to brighten myself up. I had an early morning class–Health and Wellness–and I darted into it at the last minute. The desk I sat in was wobbly and creaky.

Hmm, I remember thinking. I hope today isn’t going to be a wobbly desk kind of day.

“Anyone watch the news?” my teacher asked. “Looks like a plane hit a building in New York. I think the pilot was drunk.” And then he started the lesson.

When I stepped outside after class, I was immediately aware of the buzzing around me. The little campus was alive and humming, and it took me a few moments to understand what the odd noise was.

Everyone was talking. To each other, on the phone. Some were crying. A girl I knew from theater auditions caught my eye.

“Al!” She yelled, using the nickname that I only ever let her call me. “Al, they blew up New York!”

I ran back to my dorm, flew up three flights of stairs and crashed into the first room I saw with it’s door open. There were four or five other people in it, all staring silently at the TV. I joined them, and watched the second tower fall.

I reached into my back pack for my brand new cell phone and dialed the number of the only person I knew who would have the answer.

“Daddy?” I whispered when he answered. “What’s happening?”

“I don’t know, darling,” he said. “I really don’t know.” He didn’t have the answer that morning, and that scared me more than anything.

Classes were cancelled for the rest of the day, and everyone on my hall crowded into one room to watch the news. We were still all practically strangers, but we sat close together–heads on each other’s shoulders, hands held, knees touching. We found comfort in the physical contact.

Of course, I was affected by the day. It changed all of us–tragedy and devastation had come to our soil, and it shook us. But I didn’t have any friends or family in NYC. I had no brothers or sons in the military. For all intents and purposes, my every day life shouldn’t have changed that day. But it did, because I met him.

He was a year older than me. He was smart and popular–he played soccer and tennis, sat on the student government, and was a student advisor and tutor. He was the first boy who ever used a word I had to look up–ad nauseum, in case you’re wondering. And he had a smile that made me feel a little light headed.

And he was Arabic.

When he came across me walking the night of the attacks, pacing the quad and wondering if anyone in NYC could see the stars, he fell into step with me and asked if I was okay. I nodded, feeling suddenly shy around this boy I had only seen around campus.

“You’re Allyson, right?” He asked. “Your family okay?” I told him all my family was fine, and asked about his. He had family in Vermont, he told me, but they were all safe.

We walked and walked late into the night, talking. At first I thought he was just being nice, making sure the scared little first-year girl didn’t freak out. But then as the hour got later, and he started talking about himself, I began to hope it was a little more than that.

Over the next few days, as we got a sense of the magnitude of the tragedy and terrorism, I felt horribly guilty. I felt like I should be in mourning for our country, to be solemn and serious all the time–when I actually felt giddy and lighthearted. This boy I had found–this smart, sweet, dark-skinned boy–was changing my world.

I’ve gone over it so many times in my head that it plays out like a cheesy movie: small town girl goes to college, finds romance and diversity, broadens world view. But that’s exactly how it went. I was not raised to be terribly trusting or accepting of people different than me, except maybe in a controlled, Girl-Scout type environment. But there I was, dating a boy raised in a Muslim family, while my country declared war on them. Needless to say, my father was NOT pleased.

I just couldn’t align what I was seeing on TV with the boy in front of me. One night he sat next to me on the floor of my dorm room, head and shoulders sagging: his sister had tried to fly down and see him and had been detained at the airport simply because of how she looked. I was overwhelmed by the desire to see the bad guys, the enemies, caught–but I was quickly learning that the way a person looked did not a bad guy make. That may seem like a simple lesson, but it was one that would have been harder for me, with my upbringing, to learn with words alone. It would have been very easy for me to judge–and to hate–based on the way a person looked. But thanks to him, I didn’t.

I know the situation back then was culturally and politically complicated. It still is. I’m glad my child isn’t old enough yet that I have to explain these things to him, because I’m not sure I entirely understand them myself. How do you explain the Uni bomber, the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, or the Boston Marathon bombing? How do you explain school shootings? My seriously over-simplified thought: bad guys are bad guys because of their actions, not because of the way they look. You certainly find some traits and beliefs that are more common among groups of people, but there are always the good guys– people that are searching for tolerance. And, just like the bad guys, they can be any color or shape.

My heart goes out to all the people who lost someone on this day, fourteen years ago. To all the people who will never get another phone call from their spouse, their friend, their loved one. To all the children who lost someone: my heart breaks for you. I, along with the country, share your pain–even though I know it doesn’t lessen it. And to all the people who risked and lost their lives trying to save others–I can only hope to be half as brave as you. Thank you for being one of the good guys.