It was a few minutes after 10:00 a.m. when I came out of my Music Theory placement exam at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. I left the exam room feeling mentally exhausted, thinking how challenging it is to be a music student. I trudged to the main office to clear up some administrative issues with my schedule, and when I got there, everyone in the office was clumped together behind the counter, watching TV. I couldn’t see the screen, but it sounded like a news program. I thought, Wow, they’re lazy here, watching the news when they should be working.
I asked in an annoyed voice if someone could please help me. A girl turned to me, eyes vacant, and said, “The World Trade Center is down.”
“You mean, like, the stock market crashed?” I asked. She couldn’t possibly have meant that the building fell down. Skyscrapers don’t just “fall down.”
“No. The building collapsed. It’s gone. There’s nothing. It’s…gone.”
I tried to imagine a giant building like that falling. But surely the people got out in time? There would have been some kind of advanced warning that the building had been unstable, right? Was there an earthquake?
The room erupted in screams and gasps. Someone was whimpering. I didn’t know it then, but that was the moment the other tower fell.
I still couldn’t see the TV, but now my heart was slamming in my temples. The room fell ominously quiet and filled with a thick, palpable dread. I heard the reporter on TV say the word “terrorist,” and my throat closed up, aching with that feeling you get when you want to burst into tears but you don’t want anyone to see you cry, so you clench your jaw and everything gets too tight. I backed out of the room, the word “terrorist” trailing after me like an echo.
I didn’t find out what had really happened until after lunch. I didn’t have a TV, so I had to wait for my roommate to get home and unlock his room, the only room in the eight-bedroom rental with a TV. Out of the eight of us who lived in that house, I was the only American citizen.
I felt like an alien sitting there with my seven foreign roommates watching that little TV, witnessing my fellow Americans jumping out of those high windows over and over again, seeing the planes rip through the buildings, watching those majestic twins cave into themselves on a repeat reel. One of my roommates said something like, “I guess it was only a matter of time before something like this happened in America.”
I told her to shut the hell up. I sat too close to the TV, crying and shaking. My roommates left me alone.
I’ve never been much of a patriot, but in that moment, I understood the definition of allegiance. I now know that my roommates were as stunned as I was and simply didn’t know how to react to such an unfathomable tragedy. But on that day, in that moment, more than any other moment previous or since, I felt… American. I was with the victims, the ones on the planes, those trapped in the buildings, the rescuers, the terrified people running through the streets, the loved ones at the other end of cell phone calls speaking with the foreknowledge that they had only a few rushed moments to say their last words before the line went dead. I will never forget that feeling of unity, the product of shared suffering.
Today, on this fourteenth anniversary of 9/11, let us remember where we were, what we saw, how we felt in those first terrible moments of shock. Tell your story today, whatever it is, because it is a valid account of that event. Pass your experience to the next generation so they can feel the depth of this loss with us. After all, we promised, remember?