My senior year of college, I wrote the poem below about my second day of classes freshman year, September 11, 2001, for my thesis project. I still remember that day, as I’m sure many Americans do. I was in school in Boston, and since Logan was the airport where the planes had taken off, the sky was completely empty all day. I’d never in my life felt such a profound silence as I did when I walked across Boston Common. It was like the world had stopped turning and we were all frozen in place, just waiting.
I had new friends – acquaintances, really – who were trying desperately to get in touch with family or friends in New York. Those of us who lived on campus were mostly freshman or sophomores, and we spent the day wandering. There were no classes. No parents. No teachers. No guidance, really. I found myself in the dining hall, at one point, and it had a great big tv tuned to CNN, but there was nothing new to report, and I couldn’t stand the sound of it. I couldn’t bear the collective terror and anticipation about what might come next.
The hardest part for me that day, though, was trying to reconcile my country’s devastation with my family’s personal crisis. I was numb. So many people had died and would die that day, and in the years to follow. I didn’t know yet how frightening it would be two years later when there was talk of reinstating the draft, how I would feel paralyzed with fear, not just for myself, but for the younger siblings of friends who had just turned eighteen. I didn’t know yet about the war, and the seemingly endless violence that would spread itself across the world. I didn’t know about beheadings, or about friends coming home in flag covered caskets. I didn’t know about any of it. I was just buried under what felt like all the grief of the world, and I thought this is it. This is what it means to grow up and leave home. It is an acceptance of the burden of the terrible acts that occur, a sharing of the sadness and guilt and responsibility of wrongdoing. It is tragedy, in all its guises. It is a reaching, a striving for inner strength that may not even exist yet.
The thing about growing up though, is that there is a realization that the search for answers and comfort is never complete. Children may look to us and see the actions of confident people; it is not until they’ve grown that they realize we’re as frightened and vulnerable as we’ve always been. We just rehearse heroism on the off-chance someday that bravery will mean something. It’s an act, the steadying of the chin, the straightening of the shoulders, but it’s an important one. It’s a sign that we haven’t given up, that as human beings, no matter what private horrors we each must face, it is worth
something everything to go on.
The second day of school
When I call home, I try not to sound
like I need her too much. I leave the TV on,
although it is impossible to comprehend
the faces that have already burned away
before cameras were trained on the men
and women who have flung themselves
from the two towers. My mother tells me
my grandmother has been admitted
to Frisbee Memorial, that she’s had
a nervous breakdown. That she locked herself
in her room for three days, and my grandfather
tried to take care of her because he couldn’t
remember how to use the phone to call for help.
It is only nine thirty. I’ve been away from home
one week and a day. A lifetime, now.
I called to hear her voice, to hear that I am not
as fragile as I know I am. She hasn’t even heard
the news. I have to tell her. And I do,
and I don’t cry. I speak the words
the television has been whispering –
the hot blue skies, the planes crashing
a hundred thousand times over as we try
to understand how this could happen –
and I don’t cry. It is not my tragedy
I’m watching unfold on the screen.