Where Were You?

11 Sep

I was at my desk, doing those last-minute things a teacher does as her students enter the classroom. Annette walked in, slinging her backpack off her back like millions of other high school kids across the globe. I don’t know who spoke first, or if we exchanged greetings, I just remember her pronouncement.

“I heard a plane crashed into the Twin Towers.”

I remember being surprised she knew what the Twin Towers were, though I’m not sure why it surprised me. I said, “Oh, that’s sad. What a terrible accident.” And I kept on with my mundane tasks, preparing for the day.

Right behind her walked another student – I don’t remember who – and they, picking up on Annette’s words, said, “I heard it was two planes.”

Something in my heart lurched. “Two?” I thought. “Surely that can’t be right. Exageration. Confusion. Two?” And even though I knew nothing more about it than the two simple sentences exchanged as morning gossip, something dark in my heart leapt to life and I thought, “One plane is an accident. Two planes is deliberate.”

“But how can that be?” I wondered as I fumbled for my radio. “I drove here not 30 minutes ago, listening to the news and nothing was happening. What’s the truth behind this?” I didn’t know. I didn’t understand.

The bell to begin First Hour rang as I fiddled with the radio’s knobs, striving to get MPR, ABC, something to come in loud and clear. I got garble; I got fear.

I strode to the front of the classroom, finally giving up on the static, and stood before the small crowd of senior English students. I don’t know what I said, but it was nothing profound. We knew nothing yet, had no definite stories; only fuzz, only disjointed whispers and half-heard anchormen, themselves puzzling together the pieces. They didn’t know. They didn’t understand.

The noise in the hallway, louder and later than usual, settled down as I began our morning devotions. The phone rang in the office, the sound of it reaching up to the balcony above where it floated through my open door. I began to teach because what else was I to do? I didn’t know. I didn’t understand. How could we? The story was still unfolding.

Our principal stood suddenly in the door, the telephone in her hand. She held it out, walking towards me. I took it, thinking wildly, “What is so important that she’s interrupting class? And is she going to stay with my students while I talk and must I really take this call NOW?”

“It’s your husband,” she said.

I looked at her in alarm. Colin was in Los Vegas, on a business trip. Why was he calling? Something – something beyond my control – was happening and I didn’t like the feel of my erratic heart. Or was it the baby lurching in my womb? I didn’t know. I didn’t understand.

Right there, in front of the class, I took the phone.

“I’m okay…,” his voice reached me, small and far away. He was hard to hear. Or was it that I was hard of understanding? “…but we can’t fly home. All the planes are grounded. We’re trying to rent a van to take everyone back. I’ll be in touch when I know more.”

Around me the students were filing past, following the principal to a different classroom; a room with a television, where everyone could sit together and experience whatever this was which was happening. I could hear the TV’s sounds, floating down the hallway, though I could not make out the words. I could barely make out my own thoughts.

“What do you mean all planes are grounded?” I asked, gripping the podium as dizziness gripped my head. The baby felt so heavy, like an impossible weight in the pit of my stomach, like a stone dragging me down as the room spun and I leaned for all I was worth on that wooden pedestal, my mouth dry as dust, all the questions of the world spinning through my head. I didn’t know. I didn’t understand.

“All the planes in the country – in Canada, too, I think – are grounded because of what happened.”


“I’ve got to go, Hun,” Colin’s voice said. “I wanted you to know we’re okay and not to worry. I’ll call you when I can. I’m safe. Don’t worry. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

I pressed the button to turn off the phone. The room around me shifted; or was it the world? I straightened up and followed the sound of the TV down the hall and into a room full of frightened faces, to a room full of answers; full of questions.

I watched as, within minutes, the second tower fell.

And then I knew. Then I understood, even if through a glass darkly. This is not the same world I woke up in.

“The king is dead. Long live the king.”

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27

QUESTION: Where were you? What were you doing? How did your world shift that day?


13 Responses to “Where Were You?”

  1. Kathleen Erickson September 11, 2011 at 5:27 pm #

    It was such a beautiful morning–bright blue sky and brilliant sunshine! I was at the halfway point of my morning commute when I switched on the radio. The announcer’s tone of voice told me that something terrible had happened but it was like tuning into a movie that had already started. I held my breath and waited for the voice to recap the situation. I heard World Trade Center and my heart sank.

    I pulled into the church parking lot knowing that one building had collapsed. It was a MOPS morning but the building was strangely quiet. All the women were gathered around the television in the lounge and someone said, “There goes a second tower!” We all huddled around the TV as our minds tried to grasp what was happening. We were under attack in our own country!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell September 11, 2011 at 6:02 pm #

      Wow, that would be a MOPS to remember, that’s for sure…even for you who weren’t a MOPS mom!! It was nice being at the school and having a group to experience it with…going through it together was helpful, as I’m sure you experienced there at church. I like your analagy that it was like entering a movie late…yes, I agree…it was hard to feel caught up for a long time, especially as things kept on happening.

  2. Neeks September 11, 2011 at 5:44 pm #

    I was out mowing my yards. When I came in for a break my aunt called and told me to turn on the tv. I was in shock, it was just so hard to believe that anyone could DO such a thing.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell September 11, 2011 at 5:56 pm #

      No kidding, it is hard to believe. Such a massive, pre-meditated, horrifying thing!

  3. Rita Vander Kooi September 11, 2011 at 5:45 pm #

    I was a senior on the U of M campus. Walked out of my speech class and everyone was talking about it. That afternoon, I remember talking to my Agronomy professor about how all the classes for the rest of day were cancelled and he said, “Yeah, it’s a terrible thing what happened, but we have to keep going.” And he was so right.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell September 11, 2011 at 5:59 pm #

      Yeah, you can’t bury your head and freak out. We got cable – for the first time ever – the day it happened. I remember the cable guy arriving and thinking, “Wow, if ever there was a day I wanted cable, this would be it!” And then a lot of the non-news cable stations were “out” in support of the event…something I still find interesting to this day.

  4. Andrea September 13, 2011 at 8:54 am #

    A nice one.

  5. Ron September 13, 2011 at 9:15 pm #

    A Gretchen. It was my second year in Minnesota. I was heading to my sociology class, a fact I find ironic now. All classes were cancelled and half the school crowded around the big screen TV in the commons. I felt so insulated from the world here. A feeling I hated when I first moved here, but instantly cherished at that moment and have since.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell September 14, 2011 at 6:33 am #

      Thanks, Ron – for the “plus”!!! Yes, there are “pluses” (ha!) and minuses being way out in the boondocks, that’s for sure. Though I suppose that in light of the twistedness of a terrorist’s brain, nowhere is safe. really.

  6. Ron September 13, 2011 at 9:17 pm #

    That was supposed to say A PLUS Gretchen. Shouldn’t respond on my phone.

  7. Valerie Adolph October 2, 2011 at 4:35 pm #

    That brought back memories. That weekend was my husband’s birthday and family from out of town were staying with us. We were all in celebration mode and then….

    For long minutes I watched the news trying to figure out why they were playing old movies in prime news time, and then….

    We’re on the flight path to Vancouver airport and we watched US planes come in from overseas, one after another to land here. Then silence as no more planes flew. To me that long silence without any planes flying over was the first and biggest tribute to those who died that day. I know that wasn’t the purpose but that was how it felt.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 2, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

      Yes, I remember the reactions of television stations. That was the very day I got cable for the first time ever, and I remember sitting in front of the TV and thinking how wild: all these channels and they’re not playing what I’d expect. It took me awhile to figure out what was going on in TV land! But what a day to get cable!

      That must have been wild, the quiet air space. What a great image. Yes, like a tribute…and certainly a powerful memory. I just read your last paragraph to my husband (who flies a LOT) and he said, “OH, WOW!” The power of words!!! Thanks so much for sharing that.

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