As we mark 20 years since the tragedy of September 11, 2001, the Emma Willard School community took a moment during Friday’s Morning Reports to reflect on the impact of that day in history. We invite you to join in reflecting on the thoughts and experiences shared by History Instructor Drew Levy and student Mehar S. ’24.
History Instructor Drew Levy
Eight years ago tomorrow, on the eleventh of September 2013, I walked into my U.S. History classroom on the first floor of Slocum Hall, picked up a piece of chalk, and wrote across the board, “9/11 Never Forget.”
I intended to use that simple phrase – still encountered then on t-shirts and bumper stickers, in political speeches and memorial sermons - to spark a conversation with my students about that day and its meanings. I walked into that conversation knowing that most of my students had no direct experience of the events that took place on that tragic day. For them, as for most of you, it was literally impossible to remember September 11th. Though, of course, it was not difficult at all for those students to think about the world the events of that day helped make, the world in which they had grown up, the only world they had ever known.
Over the course of our time together that morning, we talked about the meaning of that phrase, “9/11 Never Forget” and how it had changed over time; we talked about the nature of memory and remembrance; we talked about the wars still ongoing in both Afghanistan and Iraq; we talked about the contested terrain of History, which is, as James Baldwin observed, “literally present in all that we do.”
At some point during that conversation, I shared with my students a rather remarkable photograph made in New York City by a photojournalist named Thomas Hoepker on the morning the Twin Towers fell. The image was not wildly distributed until years after the terrorist attacks. None of my students had previously seen it.
In the foreground of the photograph a small group of New Yorkers, they look like friends, sit together talking at the water’s edge in a Brooklyn park. The individuals are focused on one another, seemingly enjoying their conversation, by all appearances oblivious to the scene playing out behind them. In the background of the photograph, huge plumes of black smoke billow up above the skyline of Lower Manhattan. It is an arresting and unsettling photograph. Looking at it you can’t help but think, “What’s wrong with these people? How could they be so callous, so indifferent in the face of such tragedy?
As my students were quick to recognize and observe that immediate response is probably both unfair and false. On that bright blue, cloudless September morning, Thomas Hoepker’s camera exposed that photograph in a fraction of a second. It can tell us nothing of what those five individuals were saying or feeling. It gives us no indication of what this scene had looked like seconds before Hoepker came upon it, nor about how different it would look after the photographer continued to make his way, somewhat frantically, towards what would come to be called Ground Zero.
By the end of class, my students had come to agree that this image and people’s reactions to it probably told us far more about the years after September 11th, about how that event had come to be thought about and remembered, than it did about that specific day.
One student went so far as to suggest that the image’s power resided in the fact that we might all see ourselves in it. That to some degree Americans had forgotten or turned away from what they had so loudly pledged never to forget. “What is it we should learn and remember,” my students asked. “What are the costs of forgetting? And in what ways is forgetting also essential to healing and learning and moving on?”
Eight years later, as the twentieth anniversary of that day approaches, I have been thinking back upon that morning. I stand before you today not simply to commemorate the events of that day, nor simply to ask you to remember, to honor, the thousands of lives lost on that morning. I hope that we can and will continue to do those things. But I hope as well, that like my students in that class eight years ago, we will also take up the more difficult work of thinking through the complicated history of that day and its aftermath, thinking not only about the scene in the background of that Thomas Hoepker photograph, but also about the wars that followed, one of which, a conflict in Afghanistan that came to be called the Forever War, only ended just a couple of weeks ago as we arrived back here on campus for the beginning of a new school year. I hope we can remember the dead of September 11th while also remembering the hundreds of thousands who have died in the resulting wars of the past twenty years, including the thirteen American soldiers who died in a bombing in Kabul during the last week of August and the innocent Afghani civilians – men, women, and children – who died just a couple of days later as a result of an American drone strike intended to prevent a second terror attack against Afghani citizens and American soldiers gathered in and around Hamad Karzai International airport.
I remember being so very impressed, so deeply moved, by the things my students said in class that day. And I remember that as my students picked up their things and shuffled toward the door, I turned to erase the board. And even after more than an hour's discussion of the September 11th attacks, I could not do that simple task - I could not erase the words, "9/11 Never Forget" - without being taken aback, staggered a bit, as my whole day's "lesson plan" was offered back to me in an instant. I stood there for a long moment, quietly holding the eraser in front of the board, before I swept away the words, the message, the chalk, leaving only a blank slate, a clean slate, a new beginning.
Mehar S. ’24
I’m Mehar, a sophomore day student, and I am a Sikh. Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world and originated from India. The followers believe in one God, don’t cut their hair, and the men wear turbans. One of those men is my father.
Almost 20 years ago today, the security of the U.S.A. was questioned by many. My father worked in Tower One, the first building to go down from the dreadful plane attack. On September 10th, today, my father worked until the wee hours of morning and went to bed with his boss telling him he could come in late the next day. As he got ready for work on September 11th, his uncle called him and anxiously told him to turn on the news. My father could barely believe his eyes. I’m immensely grateful that my father was called in late to work that day, that he had worked late hours the night before. Even though my dad was saved that day, many others weren’t, and the effects that the plane attack caused on the people I call my family, my community, were immense.
On the day of September 11, numerous Sikh taxi drivers and doctors offered their services to those in need, free of charge, and yet on September 15, 2001, just a few days after the attack, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a turbaned, Sikh man, was murdered at his own gas station, in “retaliation” for the terrible events. A few years later, there was an attack on a Sikh Gurdwara, or place of worship, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. And just recently, there was a shooting in a FedEx that was known to have many Sikh employees. Those were only three of the many numerous bullets that my community has endured. Although I wasn’t alive during the 9/11 attack, the effects that my community and I deal with to this day still continue.
When I was nine years old, I was taught the quick elevator speech I gave you all about Sikhism at the beginning of this talk, so that when I went out and someone yelled, “terrorist!” to my father from afar, I could educate them. As a ten year old, I shouldn’t have to hear my grandfather being told, “Bin-Laden, go to hell.”
And yet I do. And so do many, many others. The effects of 9/11 are with so many people in our world and in our lives. The extreme Islamophobia and hatred towards people who had no relation with the events is still so prevalent. And it’s awful, it truly is. But for now, all we can do is keep fighting against these injustices that face us and educate others about the differences in the world.