In 2002, on the one-year anniversary of 9/11, my university held a memorial event on the front lawn of the university center.
In the weeks beforehand, the English department held a speechwriting contest to select a student speaker for the memorial. I intentionally didn’t enter. When it came to making remarks on 9/11, I had very little to say that I thought anyone would want to hear. I also wasn’t terribly impressed by the whole notion of our holding a memorial service in the first place. We lived in western North Carolina, an entire world removed from DC or New York; hardly any of us had even a remote personal connection to anyone who’d been injured in the attacks. I wasn’t making plans to even attend the memorial, let alone try to be part of it.
But the hour of the contest deadline arrived—actually, it had already passed—and I got a phone call from the professor who was running it. She’d heard I might be interested in writing something for them, and could I come up with a draft by tomorrow afternoon? I weakened under this direct appeal to my vanity. With effort and self-restraint, I sat down to my computer and produced a set of remarks that would neither offend anyone nor make me into a hypocrite, and slid them under the professor’s door the next morning. A few days later, I got another phone call: I’d won the contest, which made me one of the memorial keynote speakers, alongside the Chancellor and a local firefighter who’d traveled to New York the previous year to assist in the search and rescue efforts.
Twelve years on now, I don’t remember much about the memorial. I don’t remember giving my speech, though I can remember writing it. What distinguished the event from my perspective is the encounter I had afterwards with the firefighter.
I remember him as being older than me by about ten or fifteen years. He had a dark crewcut and a receding hairline and a mustache. He spoke in a thick western North Carolina accent, and he’d cried while giving his speech. When the speeches were over, he came up and introduced himself to me.
“I heard you’re going to be a teacher?” he said.
At the time, this was still true, so I said, “Yes.”
He reached for my hand, which was a little startling, because I wasn’t expecting it. He pressed something small with sharp edges into my palm. He closed my fingers over it, as if whatever he’d given me was precious. His friendly, chatty, country-boy manner melted away, replaced by sudden focus and intensity.
I opened my hand and looked at what he’d given me. It was a very small bit of broken concrete.
“That’s a piece of the rubble from the Twin Towers,” he told me. “You show that to your students one day. Promise me you won’t ever let them forget.”
I went totally blank for about a second and a half.
At the age of twenty, I was still surprised when I perceived a significant gap between my understanding and the understanding of people older than me. So there was something quite shocking about the fact that this man was imposing upon me the burden of keeping 9/11 fresh in the memories of tomorrow’s children. As if we weren’t on the brink of invading Iraq. As if history weren’t clearly eddying around this one event.
But this was a memorial service, not a debate, and the last thing I wanted to do was embarrass this man for his obvious sincerity. He’d gone to New York at his own expense to try to help save lives. He deserved respect for that. So I kept my clever mouth shut, and said, “I promise” and “thank you.”
But I didn’t become a teacher, so I’ve never had to make a decision about what to talk to students about on 9/11. I still have the piece of rubble he gave me, though. I keep it in a small glass apothecary bottle with a stoppered glass top, trapped like a bad genie.
I was nineteen years old on September 11th, 2001. Across the country, it was my high school graduating class that flocked to join the armed forces in the year leading up to the Iraq invasion. I lost college classmates who were in the reserves as they got called up, one after another. Unlike anyone who’s younger, I came of age in the pre-9/11 world; unlike anyone who’s older, 9/11 and its repercussions have dominated the entirety of my adult life.
I am in no danger of forgetting.
But sometimes I wish we would try.