Each generation has a defining moment with which every one of its members can answer the question "Where were you when?". For my grandparents it was Pearl Harbor. For my parents it was the shooting of JFK. For me, it is 9/11. It is interesting that when I started teaching 6th-8th graders in 2003 we could have a meaningful conversation about the impact of that day and their memories of it. By the time I taught my last group of 6th graders in 2014, they had not yet been born on that fateful day. In many ways, that day has defined the lives and times of my generation for the last 15 years.
My memories of that day are clear and distinct. I was staying with an aunt and uncle for a couple of days before my fall college semester started. My cousin had started already and because I loved school, I attended her English class with her on Monday morning. The teacher was a WW2 vet; he was talking about the recent 56th anniversary of the treaty with Japan and how our generation had enjoyed peace in our time, and I could not imagine the world that he had grown up in surrounded by first the reality of global war and then the threat of nuclear war. The 90's had been a charmed time, he told us, and we shouldn't expect them to last. I chuckled, but as a student of history I knew he was right. I just couldn't see how it could possibly happen anytime soon.
Tuesday morning I was awakened at around 6 AM pacific time to my aunt watching the news in the living room and found myself trying to make sense of what I was seeing. The first of the towers had been hit and smoke was billowing out. At that point everyone thought it was a horrific accident. I then watched in stunned disbelief as minutes later the second plane came into the shot and sliced through the second tower's midsection. I knew at that moment that reality for this nation had been irrevocably altered. I spent the next 24 hours, much like everyone else, trying to process what exactly had happened and to make sense of a senseless situation. A fair amount of time was spent worrying about what was next. At that time I was interning as a junior high leader in my church so I spent time re-working the "lesson" for Wednesday night and the following Sunday. At the age of 21, I had no idea how to talk to 12 and 13 year olds about evil and tragedy on this scale. I didn't even know how to talk about it to myself.
On Wednesday, I got in my taupe 1992 Chevy Corsica (yeah, I was cool in college) to drive the 3 and a half hours back to Orange County. There's a long stretch without much in the way of radio stations on California's central coast, so much of the ride was in silence and I was alone with my thoughts. As I approached the north end of LA county, it suddenly hit me: "There are no planes in the sky!" I had always taken for granted seeing numerous airliners dotting the skyline on this drive and today the skies were empty of aircraft. The reality of the situation hit home for the first time and I found myself in tears over the enormity of what had occurred.
More than the reality of the tragedy though, something else became real in that moment for me. I had spent the years from 7th through 12th grade on the mission field in Romania with my family. Spending that formative time abroad had the result that I thought of myself as neither an American nor a Romanian. I was what is called a "Third Culture Kid", equally not at home everywhere. In that moment on US Hwy 101 that Wednesday morning in 2001, I for the first time felt that something that had happened to America had happened to "us" rather than to "them". It was the first time as an adult that I thoroughly identified myself as "an American". It was healing to be able to grieve in the subsequent days with my fellow countrymen and stand in solidarity as we watched the herculean heroics of first responders and heard a president rally a people together in unprecedented unity (however short-lived). While I had returned to California three years earlier, there was a sense in which I had finally come home.
Where were you when the world stopped turning?