I remember eleven year old me sitting in class one September morning. The teacher next door came in running, trying to catch her breath, and whispered something to my teacher. Tears were streaming down her face but no one knew why. I watched my teacher thank her for the news and as she gathered her thoughts, we were asked to sit on the class rug. The same rug that many times before had been used to comfort us as we read outloud, joined us in endless games and symbolized a unity only my class shared. This time around, the rug would soften our landing as we received horrible news.
A little less than a week before it had been my birthday and to celebrate we had gone out to the city. I was captivated by the beauty of the skyscrapers that fill manhattan, especially two towers that looked like twins. I was upset because no one was allowed to go past the 2nd floor of either tower. I wasn’t able to enjoy the full view; I didn’t know that would have been the last time I saw those towers in person.
Using markers to symbolize buildings so our innocent minds would understand, my teacher explained that two planes had hit the World Trade Center. I remember some of us started to cry because things were no longer in our control. We understood that we weren’t safe, not even in school. We all sat stunned as she explained our parents were being called and we would be picked up immediately.
Eleven year old me sat on the couch watching the news all afternoon. I watched the horrific scenes of burning buildings covered in smoke that swirled about making skull shapes in the air. I watched the news in English and Spanish because pain is a universal language that would forever haunt me in my sleep. I cried for every partner, parent and child that wouldn’t get the opportunity to see their significant others again. At eleven years old I mourned and felt their loss; without knowing them I put myself in their shoes and thought, what would I do without my family?
I listened to my mother soothe me and try to get away from the TV. She patiently asked me to get some rest but I couldn’t; I was scared. Everytime I closed my eyes I saw the same images.
I’m now able to understand why in the following months my teacher was treated differently. You see, she wore a hijab. For me, she wasn’t a hijab wearer, she was a regular teacher who helped me with my science and writing. An inspirational woman who slowly and carefully helped us further develop our math skills. I remember my family was facing an economic crisis at the time; more than once I went to school without eating because we didn’t have food at home. I’d fall asleep in class and my teacher would gently ask what was going on. After confiding in her the issues I was facing, she went to the local supermarket during lunch time and filled her car trunk with enough groceries to last us a month.
The looks and comments from adjacent teachers only got worse with time. When asked why they said such things my teacher would always respond, “they’re simply having a bad day.” I’ll never forget how awkward it was during christmas time when someone gave her a World Trade Center clock and reminded her to never forget. At eleven I didn’t understand racism that well; however, our innocent minds were corrupted by the hate and fear radiating from the classrooms next door.
Soon enough kids in my class asked each other about my teachers hijab and why she looked like the people on TV. They would wonder if she knew anyone that passed away during 9/11, if she had connections with someone flying the plane, if she knew it would happen.
All the patient lessons and homework help didn’t matter anymore because a new image had been forced down our throats. She was now the muslim, the hijab wearer, the terrorist. Words that cut and hurt deep enough to make that year, her last year. I looked for her after classes started again to catch up on how our summer had been, but she was gone.
Words have such a power over someone else’s opinions and thoughts. Even though I felt the pain along with the rest of America on September 11, I am now accused of being a terrorist, roach, leech becuase of my immigration status. Regardless of my upbringing and how much I love equality, I am still blamed. Stereotypical remarks and laws that alienate others are the seeds planted into each soul that grow into xenophobia. Hate breeds hate.
This goes out to every person who has fallen into the cracks after September 11. The ones the media refuses to show: the innocent lives lost to war, those who have been isolated from a “united” nation. I’m sorry for all the racism, for the bad looks on the bus and the train. I’m sorry for the racial profiling that happens on planes. I’m sorry to the undocumented people who continue to be terrorized because of the religion they practice and feel they have no where to turn because all of their identities aren’t accepted. You are welcomed. You are wanted.
Taking a life doesn’t bring a life back, oppressing a group of people doesn’t make the pain go away. It’s easy to generalize but it takes character to forgive, to make a statement with your behavior and to step, not just think, outside of the box.
This goes out to everyone who lost loved ones during September 11. To every person who did not lose someone but did lose their dignity, their rights, their freedom. No matter your gender, immigration status, religion, social standing, sexual orientation or any other identity, we all lost something on September 11 and it’s a day that will never be forgotten.