Dr. DeLaina Tonks: Untangling the emotions of 9/11

My husband had taken the day off and was getting our two daughters, Amanda and Natalie, ready to go to the Columbus Zoo. My oldest daughters have vague wisps of memories of that day, while my two youngest children categorize 9/11 the same way they do the Civil War or the Ice Age; a historical event that happened a long time ago. It doesn’t really register for them, even though we talk about it and they know the details.

I had just started my 7th year of teaching French and Spanish at Upper Arlington High School in Ohio. I remember looking forward to each of my classes settling in–it always took a couple of months for us to get to know each other, trust each other, and learn together. As I walked through the AV room on my way to teach my 2nd period Spanish class, I saw a small group of colleagues gathered around the overhead television. They were staring at the images in horror and disbelief. I glanced up as the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center. I immediately called Paul and told him to turn on the TV and then I headed to my classroom.

Several of my students had parents, siblings, aunts, and uncles on business in NYC and DC and they left school to check on their loved ones. Those who stayed wanted to talk. We spent the day crying together and trying to process what had happened even though we barely had any details. We didn’t know if it was a freak accident, a terror attack, or what. We had no idea how many people had lost their lives. We didn’t know if those four planes were the only ones or if there were more, potentially headed our way. We were especially scared in Ohio when the plane went down a couple of hours away in Pennsylvania and we were hungry for any updates that contained explanations or new information. I’m grateful that we were able to create space to process the history unfolding right in front of our eyes. On 9/11 my students and I connected in ways that I had never experienced before.

The next day I drove slowly to the school, observing how eerily empty and quiet the skies were with every plane grounded. I carried with me a strange mix of emotions that took work to untangle. I felt betrayed. I hadn’t harmed anyone, so why would someone want to harm me or my neighbors? I felt vulnerable and exposed. How could our enemies access us on American soil? I felt afraid. What would be next? I felt grief. Mostly it was raw grief for the families who lost loved ones and for those who died trying to save others.

In the coming days I felt an entirely different mix of emotions. I felt proud to be an American. We banded together as one nation under God. We were all a little kinder to neighbors and strangers alike. I felt gratitude. Our first responders rushed toward the burning buildings to save others. Story after story of strangers selflessly serving others poured in each day and it affected me deeply. I felt hope. Life could and would improve. I wanted to be a better person, to be more selfless, to love my neighbors better.

To me, 9/11 is an event I lived through and watched unfold in real time, not just an event I learned about in school. Twenty years later, while still painful, it does feel good to remember, to take the opportunity to recommit to being a better person, to value life, and to be a little kinder. God bless the families of the fallen, the heroes of 9/11, and never let us forget the day our world changed. I will never forget.