I don’t have to ask what year. I know. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, are my Pearl Harbor. My Kennedy assassination. My Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination. My Challenger explosion. One of those memorable events that seemed to make the world stop spinning as we tried to process what was happening around us.
And yes, I remember. I’ll never forget. The world didn’t stop spinning that day. It kept right on going in the midst of unthinkable tragedy; but it did get bigger that day. At least for me.
September 11, 2001, was my first day of classes as a freshman at Furman University. It was a big day. I was an eager (and nerdy) 18-year-old who was about to find out what she was really made of in a challenging academic setting, and I believed it was the first day of a whole new world for me. I had no idea.
After my 8:00 class, I came back to my room for a little break between classes. My new roommate and I didn’t really hit it off right away, and it was silent in our room. I turned on the television to break up the silence. There were breaking news reports on every channel: a plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. What? How? I immediately assumed there had been some kind of accident and wondered how in the world that could happen. My naiveté was shattered when, just then, the South Tower was hit. Then, more breaking news as there were reports of another crash at the Pentagon. What? How?
On one hand, I knew I was watching some serious stuff go down, but I honestly couldn’t wrap my head around what was happening and how bad it really was. Not knowing what else to do, I went ahead to my 10:00 class. When I got there, I found out that my professor had cancelled class. She was coordinating a study away trip that semester and had a group of students heading to London that day. She’d had to jump into action as flights were canceled and hysteria ensued, checking in with traveling students and reassuring worried parents. I returned to my room to find out that in the short time I’d been away from the television, the South Tower had fallen. It was just gone. What? How?
I continued to watch news coverage in awe, unsure of how to react. I had no idea I was watching something that would change our nation and the world. In fact, in that moment, it still all seemed so far away from me and my life. I wouldn’t say I was necessarily sheltered, but I was born and raised in a small town in South Carolina. I had moved just two hours away to attend a small, private, liberal arts university in a slightly-bigger small city in South Carolina. I didn’t know anyone in New York or DC. I couldn’t think of anyone who was flying that day. I was detached. I don’t even recall whether I called my parents to check in. If I did, it wasn’t because I was traumatized. I just didn’t get it.
But then I noticed what was happening around me. My new friends, hallmates, and classmates were frantic. I knew people with family members in NYC and DC, who were desperately trying to contact them. I knew people from Atlanta who became terrified as rumors began to spread that the CDC could be the next target. I knew people with family in the military, whose lives were about to change. The news became real. It touched the people around me, and thus, it touched me. In this new world I was in with new people, I was able to see more clearly that it wasn't just something happening on the news. I couldn't disconnect from this.
It was the first time I can remember truly connecting to something outside of my little bubble. It was the first time I understood that the world was so much bigger—so much more important—than what was happening to me. On the surface, it didn't affect me personally, but that no longer mattered.
September 11, 2001, was the day I learned that the world is much bigger than my world will ever be, and all of us who share it belong to each other. Our pain, our struggles, our triumphs, and our joy—we have to share it all. We have to think beyond our own little bubbles and hold on to each other. Supporting those with problems we’ll never understand. Lifting up others through grief we’ll never experience. Speaking out for people whose voices won’t be heard. Loving people with beliefs we’ll never share. Yes, it’s hard, but we’ve seen the power of standing together. Maybe, just maybe, that’s what kept this world spinning when we thought it was going to stop.
While September 11 was certainly a tragedy--a nightmare, really—I am grateful for what I learned that day and in the months that followed. It opened my eyes to the big, big world around me and was one of the most valuable experiences of my life.