Understanding 9/11 as a Child Abroad

On a crisp fall day sixteen years ago, I walked home from my Michigan elementary school, angrily kicking up the first fallen leaves of autumn. The evening’s PTA meeting had been canceled; myself and a small group of other fifth graders had been hired to provide childcare for the evening, and I was missing out on a much-coveted $10.

Once home, I glumly showed the flier announcing the cancellation to my mother. “Given the circumstances,” she said, “that’s probably for the best.” She sat me down at the kitchen table and explained that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, and another into the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Those locations meant little to me; I remained more upset about my lost $10 than about this event I didn’t understand.

“Don’t turn on the television for the rest of the night,” my mother added as I walked away, simply adding to my little ten-year-old angst.

The next day, things became a bit more real. The know-it-all boy in class was spouting theories about men with strange names from countries we hadn’t heard of. We learned that our beloved music teacher, whose daughter worked in the World Trade Center, had broken down in front of her class when the principal had made rounds, whispering the news. At some point the details of the plane hijacking clicked in my mind, and I was paralyzed with fear for my older brother, a new pilot.

Today I understand that the teachers at Winchell Elementary School in Kalamazoo, MI, who held in the horrors of the news to allow their students one more school day in a pre-9/11 world, are heroes.

At home that night, I turned on the television and was immediately greeted with a sight my parents had been hoping to shield me from: men and women stepping out of the windows of the World Trade Center and falling to their deaths, choosing either consciously or by some deeper instinct to throw their fates to the sky rather than the inferno. I clicked off the television and obediently avoided the television for several more days. A few weeks ago I opened Netflix to see previews for The Falling Man filling my television screen – I immediately flashed back to ten years old, the intense vertigo in my head and pressure in my chest.

That autumn passed in a confusing blur of rhetoric and war. Spring and summer saw the erasure of September 11th from many of our young minds, and in the fall we observed the one year anniversary of the attacks with slightly more maturation, though no more understanding.

My sixth grade teacher let the coverage of the memorial in New York play in our classroom throughout the day. Presenters took turns reading the names of all 2,997 victims of the attack as their photos flashed on screen. This took hours, and the faces of primarily older businessmen and women blurred together. At one point, much tuned out to the memorial, I glanced up at the television and saw the face of a red-headed, curly-haired boy smiling at me. He was three years old. I don't remember his name but will never forget the moment that one death suddenly brought thousands into perspective for me. The memorial, the day, the year dragged into the future.

The spring of 2003 brought with it the Iraqi war, and just a couple months after that I moved to an island nation in the Caribbean, as my father accepted a position with the US Department of State.

My parents, who taught me to explore and love the world even as it seemingly became a scarier and scarier place, are also heroes.

The confusion of moving abroad is a story in itself; here, I’m remembering the unique difficulties of moving abroad while American in a post-9/11 world. One of my first memories as a diplomatic dependent (“dip kid”) was attending a safety training with embassy personnel. The garrulous man went over the basics of kidnapping, clues that a bomb might have been placed under our school bus, and safety protocols for if the embassy were attacked and we could not reach our parents. I brushed off the solemnity of these possible circumstances by adopting the brusque, sarcastic nature that teens are particularly adept at. “Oh, and if you find yourself traveling or surrounded by people who seem unfriendly to Americans,” the trainer added at the end of the meeting, “Just tell them that you’re Canadian.”

The three years I spent abroad were similarly contradictive: as diplomats, we were expected to represent our country with pride. We were to be model citizens, as I was reminded whenever my mother disapproved of my clothing or language. We were also expected to respect the customs and laws of our host country down to the line. I dutifully stood for the national anthem and adopted national holidays. On the third anniversary of September 11th, my first year in-country, a classmate at my international, American-run school suggested a moment of silence for the attacks. She was immediately ridiculed by other classmates. “This,” said one particularly loud girl, “is not America. We don’t care about 9/11.” The idea was never brought up again. 

I’m not saying that this represented the opinion of anyone other than a thirteen-year-old girl just as confused about her place in the world as I was at the time; though complicated, of course, my host country was by and large a warm and welcoming place.  However, as the Iraqi and Afghan wars continued, professing any sort of American pride became unpopular, unfashionable, and at times dangerous. Anything from eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch to presenting my American passport while traveling could provoke ridicule from classmates or an extra pat-down from security officials. At a formative time in my life, those around me were both urging me to be American and proud and to, well, pretend I was Canadian. 

My early teen years are filled with memories unique to being American in a post-9/11 foreign landscape. One day I was called out of class to the principal’s office. On the way there I ran into the two other girls whose parents worked at the US State Department; we began hyperventilating as we wondered if something had happened to the embassy, an intense sort of fear I haven’t experienced again to this day. It turns out our school bus had simply gotten a flat and would be late to pick us up that day. Or, there’s the fourth of July when the other dip kids in my housing complex set off crackers. Our guard (living in a compound with an armed guard is another story) came running, assuming that we were being shot at.

Over the years, I learned to perform my American culture in a quiet, understated, and obligatory manner, and instead filled myself with the dynamic, ambiguous and ever-flowing personality of a third-culture kid.

This, of course, caused problems when I eventually moved to Washington D.C. at age fifteen (“We hope you don’t get fat!” my classmates wished me when I announced my impending move). Suddenly, I was nowhere near American enough. I was uncomfortable, out of place, and I was angry about it.  I listened solely to the music of my previous host country. I sat silently during the morning Pledge of Allegiance. The fifth anniversary of Sept. 11th passed by with little recognition from me. I barely spoke for a year.

Because of these intertwined memories, September 11th reopens a fresh wound each year. My stories are small, my connections to the event significant only to myself. But it has taken me nearly a decade to reconcile my identity as an American with my actions as a citizen of the world. My understanding of 9/11 arrested development at thirteen, and I have only recently allowed myself to start feeling exploring the emotions that day unleashes upon me. 

Today I know that the contradictions I felt as a teen abroad existed because national identity is so very complex. Am I proud to be an American? As a fourteen-year-old, even a twenty-year-old perhaps, my answer would have been no. A year ago today, my answer was a definitive yes, despite the turmoil of the current election cycle. Today, I take a moment before answering yes, for the most part, I am proud – because now I understand that being proud of my heritage and my country is not synonymous with approving of every single action my government and fellow citizens take. I can still have faith in God and the Constitution, though the men who have interpreted the Constitution and claimed to speak for God have often succumbed to very human weakness. Patriotism is constantly fighting to make your country better, not blindly accepting its every action as sacrsanct.

Do I regret any of the hostilities or confusing moments I have faced as an American abroad? They make me sad, of course, but they define my own empathy and capacity for understanding conflict. For every scrap of animosity I felt while traveling as American, I was showered with welcomes and kindness.

Do I understand the attacks of September 11th any more today than I did as a child? No. I retain a childlike sense of disbelief at the amount of pain and destruction inflicted by humans upon other humans. But I do understand, more and more, what a hero is. I accept, more and more, the complexities of the world that I cannot understand, and the simplicity of the universal idea of love that binds us all. 

This post was originally written on Sept. 11, 2016 and has been updated to reflect my constantly changing thoughts and reflections.