I’ve begun to wonder how I will explain the significance of 9/11 to my own kids in the future. 9/11 has become a historic event we summarize with numbers and descriptive phrases. “Twelve years ago…”, “September 11, 2001”, “Over 3,000 innocent people died” , “millions affected by the tragedy and horror…” The numbers and words help describe the events, but they don’t explain the significance. For me, 9/11 was the first day I felt proud to be an American.
I always knew I was lucky to have been born in America, but I never felt particularly proud of the fact. I was born into a generation that took America’s elevated status and economic prosperity for granted. Twelve years ago on September 11, I was just another 13-year-old student taking a Texas history quiz when the intercom speaker crackled and told us, “a second plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.”
Up until that point, I had only seen the World Trade Center in the movies. For my classmates, my teachers, and extended family members this news was immediate and very real.
I didn’t understand the true severity of the attacks until a half hour later, when my father picked me up from school. We drove in silence to pick up my brother and sister from elementary school.
I had never seen my dad walk so quickly before. I had to run to keep up with him, and I had just demanded an explanation when we were stopped by a man in the hall.
The man was clearly scared, I realized later, he was just like many other parents and Americans that day. He asked my dad,”What is going to happen to us?”
“They tried their best to break us today,” my dad replied. “They caught us off guard, but we’re still here. It’s what we do. We pick up the pieces, rebuild and become stronger.”
The man didn’t say anything, but nodded and hugged my dad before walking away.
We began walking down the corridor again, and I asked my dad, “Do you know that man?”
“Nope, never saw him before in my life,” was all he said.
My family eventually gathered to eat in a Chick-fil-a while we watched the news reports, and my dad attempted to explain what happened and what it meant. It has taken us years of reports, documentaries and investigations to make sense of what happened that day.
That day, my generation learned what it meant to be an American. It’s more than the patriotic bumper stickers and status updates.
September 11 has been defined by the media as a day filled with terror, tragedy and horror. Those descriptions aren’t inaccurate. But more than that, 9/11 reminded the country, and the world that we are a resilient people, a strong nation.
Stories of the passengers on Flight 93, the Pentagon employees, and the city of New York showed me how amazing everyday Americans are. I realized how fortunate I was to live amongst individuals who could work together under incredible pressure, and sacrifice their own lives to save others.
We were the first nation to be defined by an idea and a sense of spirit, rather than a siege or land conquest. This remains true today. Events like the ongoing Syrian conflict remind me I am so fortunate to be where I am.
Our country has its faults. Our government may often disappoint us and fall short, but as a people, we have rebuilt and become stronger.
When my kids ask me to explain 9/11, I will tell them it was the day I realized I was part of something bigger than myself. I realized how lucky I was to be an American; I realized I owed it to the generations of Americans before me and after me to act with that same courage and resilience.