How Old Were You on 9/11? (or “The Semi-Sequel to ‘Lunch with a Myth'”)

Posted: September 12, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

On Monday, I was walking and doing math at the same time. That’s a dangerous combination for me. It’s far easier to walk and chew gum, or drive with one knee while dipping a french fry in ketchup.

The initial equation was 2013-18 = ?

The Loop in Chicago is home to a bunch of universities, including Robert Morris, and students are everywhere. When I walk from campus to my car each day, I love hearing snippets of the conversations students are having.

On Monday, two male students walking behind me were talking about 9/11.

Student 1: “My professor was telling us about 9/11. That s*** is crazy!”

Student 2: “Yeah, totally! I remember turning on the TV that day and being like ‘What’s this s*** and why’s it on so early?’ Then I was like, ‘Woah, this s*** is actually happening!’”

I didn’t glance back to see them, but their language and not-quite-fully-post-pubescent squeaky voices gave them away as fresh-faced 18-year-old college newbies who were probably in a Freshman level History course. And what the second student said sounded hollow, not like something he had experienced, but like a memory he had constructed based on secondhand experiences.

9-11-never-forgetSeptember 11, 2001 is a “Where were you?” moment. Any American old enough to remember that day knows exactly where he/she was at when they first learned of the attack. I was in college and living at home, planning to sleep in late before my afternoon class until my Vietnam vet dad threw open my bedroom door in our suburban Chicago home declaring, “We’re under attack!” as if it was happening in our driveway.

Therefore, it struck me as odd that these students were talking about 9/11 like a distant event out of legend.

Then I remembered I’m not in college anymore.

It’s 2013. They’re 18.

2013-18 = they were born in 1995.

2001-1995 = they were 6 years old when 9/11 happened.

At 31 years old, I generally feel pretty young. I’m the baby (or the obnoxious little brother) of my department at work, and I still have plenty of students who are around my age. Therefore, I sometimes mistakenly think that my college students grew up in basically the same world as I did.

However, this moment on the street reminded me that in the eyes of a traditional college Freshman, I am an old fart.

They were 1 when I entered high school; they were 5 when I entered college; they were going to prom as I turned 31.

Even so, I wanted to turn around and say, “How can you NOT remember 9/11 like it was yesterday?”

How hypocritical that would have been.

Only two weeks ago, I wrote about having lunch with a World War II veteran and how due to my age, “World War II seems so distant and feels as ‘real’ to me as even more distant conflicts like the Civil War or the Revolutionary War.”

To that veteran, not only was WWII real, but it was perhaps the defining time of his entire life. To me, it was something I heard stories about in school, in movies, on TV.

To me, 9/11 happened during college – a defining time in the life of a young adult. To these students, it was something they heard stories about in school, in movies, on TV.

Sure, it’s not a perfect apples-to-apples comparisons. WWII ended 37 years before I was born; they were alive when 9/11 occurred.

But, in their defense, if I think back to 1988 when I was 6-years-old, what do I actually remember? Most of my memories from that year actually come from watching “I Love the 80s” on VH1 during college.

Still, I continued to not want to let them off the hook. I argued to myself that it’s not like 9/11 happened and that was the last we heard of it. The event changed our world. The ripples outward from that moment are still moving today.

One in particular I’ll never forget is when the restrictions for taking liquids on planes started. It was August 2006. There was a foiled terrorist plot involving combining liquids inside an airplane’s bathroom mid-flight to create an explosion. The targets were planes traveling from London’s Heathrow airport to America and Canada.

liquidsairplanes2That, coincidentally, happened during the week I was flying home from England after studying abroad for graduate school. When I arrived at Heathrow, there were piles of discarded liquid containers outside of security. Lines were longer than usual for everyone but me; I was personally escorted through the line by an airport employee who saw my bags were marked for Chicago. “I loooooooove Chicago!” he said. “Follow me!” I was given VIP treatment and skipped to the head of lines as I was told every tale of his trip to Chicago several years earlier.

As that day at the airport played out, I realized that the security response wasn’t just a product of the foiled terrorist plot, but also a product of 9/11. It wasn’t just about the liquids; it was a collective, “We are NOT letting THAT happen AGAIN!” I also felt guilty for my VIP treatment and quietly questioned how unsafe such behavior from an airport employee was in our post-9/11 world.

I wonder what 9/11 ripple effects are present in the daily lives of these students that they do not realize originated from that point? Is it their responsibility to know? Is it their professor’s responsibility to teach them? Or is it just important for them to know the big picture?

But again, I am being a hypocrite. What effects do I not realize came from the Cold War, Vietnam, WWII? Am I responsible for knowing? Or should I just know the big picture?

I don’t have the answers to those questions, but I do know two things:

1. I said nothing to those students even though their conversation sparked this much of a response, and…

2. Being a History professor must be friggin’ hard.

  1. Ray says:

    On 9/11, I was 7 years old. The only part of that day I really remember was sitting in class, and my teacher leaving the room for about 10 minutes. When she came back she looked worried. She told us, “I just got news that there were two airplanes that just flew into the Twin Towers in NY; and that’s all we know.” And then we prayed. After, each kid had questions “Why did that happen? Who’s fault was it?” She didn’t have an answer, but there’s no way she could have one. The reason I feel like I do remember a lot more than that, is because everything was recorded, and each news story is online and still played on it’s anniversary. That makes me feel like I remember the whole story.

    I believe we are responsible to learn of what happened that day. It doesn’t necessarily have to from a teacher, but find out about it somehow. Where we are in the internet, there’s no reason not to have no idea in what happened in events like that. It’s important to learn about them somehow one way or another.

  2. Bryanna Satterlee says:

    Although I’m not much older than the students talked about in the article, I’m 20 years old and was 8 years old when 9/11 happened. I was in 2nd grade in Mrs. Hall’s class. We had TV’s in the room for announcements in the school and as in the comment above, I remember my teacher leaving the room for a short period of time and saying something similar to the effect of the Twin Towers being hit and then turning the TV on for us to the news and watching what had happened and news stations everywhere were covering the story. I can still remember where I was and what had happened, that even as an 8 year old, although I may not have understood completely at the time what it all meant and what all was going on, it made a big enough impact that I still remember today. I also agree that it is up to us today to continue to educate ourselves and the younger generations on these types of things. The people who don’t remember and didn’t grow up with it and weren’t even alive when this tragedy happened.. they still will learn and will know about it, just like we learned about past wars. With technology today and how advanced everything is, there’s no reason/excuse for these things to go unheard of.

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