Where were you?

For me, it was completely random. I was in a place I had never been before and would never be again. But one that is forever seared into my memory.

A few weeks into my one and only year teaching middle school in Cleveland Municipal, I had a two day in-service for something I’ve completely forgotten and was sent to a computer lab at Margaret Ireland Elementary School.  After several hours of sitting in a roomful of teachers, bored but lulled by the sun streaming in the windows and (more importantly) by the fact that we had no unruly middle schoolers to control for the entire day, we were given a ten-minute break to use the bathroom and get a drink. I walked down the hall, awed by the sweet little children quietly learning (pathetically unlike the middle school where I was employed), when I passed a teacher who worked there. “It’s so peaceful here,” I couldn’t help but gush.

“Peaceful?!” she shouted, clearly distraught. “Peaceful?! We’ve been attacked!”

I had no idea what she was talking about and actually thought maybe she was overreacting to some minor elementary disciplinary issue (boy, she should check out Spellacy if she wants to see attacks). So I returned to the computer room and found it abuzz. People trying to get online but frustrated by the old dial-up connections, slower than ever on that day, some talking anxiously into their cell phones (big, flip-phones with antennae — my, how much changes in ten years), words flying through the air: attacked, World Trade Center, airplanes, terrorists, Pentagon, … war.

War? Wait … what? War doesn’t happen here.

Bits and pieces of information were shared by anyone with a connection to anyone. But nothing really made sense. Obviously, at that point, no one knew anything about what was happening and, of course, as we all found out over the days and weeks ahead, none of it could have made sense anyway. None of what was post-9/11 could have ever made sense to those of us still living in pre-9/11.

Except that it had happened. It had, indeed, happened. Finally, our instructor sent us home and two teachers piled into my car and drove through an oddly crowded by subdued downtown to the duplex I shared with Mark, my fiance of just a few weeks. It’s funny that I spent that afternoon with two people whose names I barely remember. One was Matt (I think?) and I know that he was in the National Guard, which I’m sure gave that day a whole other meaning for him. The other was a young woman named Erin who only lasted a month or two at that extremely tough school and then I never saw her again.

But we were together that day. Because no one wanted to be alone. Mark came home, released early from his law school classes, since Cleveland believed it was under attack too with Flight 93 circling overhead. We all sat in my living room, watching TV in stunned silence as the footage played over and over again. Towers being hit over and over again, towers falling over and over again, as if hundreds of planes had hit hundreds of towers and tens of thousands of terrified workers had jumped to their deaths.

I don’t remember much about the rest of the day, except talking to my mom on the phone, as she checked on the safety of each of her children. What did we have for dinner that night, I wonder, those of us who sat safely in our living rooms crying in front of the television while our own country was in chaos? While people in nearby cities were searching for their loved ones or lying crushed under piles of rubble? We must have eaten and eventually town ourselves away from the news to brush our teeth and go to bed, right? Right?

I remember in those first few days being most upset by a few young women I saw on TV who were searching for their fiances. As a newly engaged person who felt like I’d finally found my “one,” these were the people I most identified with. If it happened today, I would be most saddened by the mothers who’d lost their children. But at that moment in my life, the greatest love I’d known was Mark and so those were the stories that broke my heart. I do hope they found someone else, those women on the verge of happiness.

I drove past Margaret Ireland Elementary today with Austin, on our way to the granite store downtown.  It looks the same. But I know it’s not.

“That’s where I was,” I said out loud, half to Austin and half to no one. That’s where I was when everything changed.

Where were you?