Quickly, over her right shoulder and the sweaty clasp of her line partner’s hand, Ava looked back. She wasn’t supposed to. Her ashen-faced teacher had told her not to in a slow otherworldly voice. But Ava did anyway. She didn’t know what it was at first. She had to squint through the wisps of strawberry blond, which had come undone from her pigtail braids only minutes before in the playground, but she still managed to see it. A burst of flame and something— falling. It was such a small, strange shape. She thought it was a sack -spreading. Then she noticed the limbs, like the rays of a cartoon star. It plunged, limp, with a weight and grace as if both trying to fly and wanting to embrace the ground. She wished she could grab it like a scrap of paper and pluck it from the air.
P.S. 234 was and is a small public elementary school three blocks north of the site of the World Trade Center. On the morning of September 11, 2001, shortly after arriving at school, Ava and her classmates were told that there had been an accident at the towers, and that everyone was to line up and evacuate immediately.
As they walked away from the billowing curtain of smoke that pressed at their backs through the cracks between slabs of steel, Ava didn’t know she would never return to her apartment. She didn’t know that this was the start of an unavoidable political awakening. She didn’t know that by the time she’d get to middle school her history curriculum would be forever changed to accommodate a much smaller world, a much more complex understanding of its inhabitants. Nine-year-old Ava just thought about her favorite Krispy Kreme store at the base of the Trade Towers and worried.
After nearly a year of displacement, the students of P.S.234 returned to TriBeCa. The building was remodeled with huge windows and skylights and a new raised playground. Laura Bush visited the school shortly after its dedication and distributed picture books, and boxes of miniature crayons. For better or worse the children’s identities as citizens of the United States took on a new significance. Years later they would be forced to confront the fact that they were members of a power that could elicit such desperate violence and hatred.
Ten years have passed, but for many New Yorkers, that event is still as significant and visceral as it was a decade ago. Everyone knows where he or she was that morning, everyone’s lives were changed – even those of us only peripherally involved. We also live with a guilt, a knowledge that anything we describe of our own experience isn’t worthy next to the shattered landscape of so many others. We can only imagine and respect their loss, only feel the complex afterlife of that morning.
On the day itself, the adults told the children not to look back.
Ten years later, looking back is encouraged.
In a way, there is no back. That morning lives fully in our present – suspended in the air.