Fourth grade was off to a splendid start. Rebecca Nolan was my first crush and I was lucky enough to be seated directly next to her all year. This is my moment! Her curly blonde hair was pulled back in a plaid headband matching the catholic school uniform skirt. She had big blue eyes and an infectious smile bookended with idyllic dimples. I was out of her league, no doubt about it. I had been skinny up until that point, but my love of strawberry Pop-Tarts and the lack of a timely growth spurt left me with some extra weight in my face and belly. The corrective braces wouldn’t come until seventh grade so my gap-toothed smile and eight-year-old sense of humor would have to do for now. So was the awkward courtship of fourth-grade love.
It was a sunny Tuesday morning in September when our flirting got off to a start. We pulled out the same pencil case in different colors – hers pink, mine red. Rebecca giggled and gave me the first butterflies I’d ever get from a girl. Mrs. O’Keefe started the day going over how to answer questions in full sentences. The sun was shining brightly through the squeaky blinds, making Rebecca’s hair shine gold.
Right across the hall was the boy’s bathroom. My two best friends, Matt and Chris, would go in and fool around to do the silly things boys do at that age: cover the faucet with our hands and spray water at each other, stand up on toilet seats, and make fart noises with our armpits. We’d peer out the window and watch planes take off from LaGuardia airport. In the distance, we could see the Manhattan skyline just past Shea Stadium – the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Twin Towers. It was Queens, New York in 2001.
After morning prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, announcements were over, and class started. Mrs. O’Keefe taught us every subject – math, English, science, history, and as a catholic school, religion. Tuesdays also meant gym class, so I wore my gym clothes underneath my white collared shirt, navy blue tie, blue pleated khakis, and black dress shoes. Our CYO basketball team was starting to get good. Chris was the point guard, Matt played center, and I was the power forward. We had great chemistry, and the girls in our grade started coming to our games that year, adding to my nerves in layup lines.
It was gorgeous out that Tuesday, meaning we’d have three opportunities to shoot hoops: once in recess, another game at gym class in the afternoon, and then real practice at night, where Matt’s dad was our coach.
I was a decently smart kid – never got in trouble, at least. My brother Tommy was three years older than me in the seventh grade at the same school and set a good precedent for me coming up through the system. All the teachers loved Tommy, which meant I didn’t have to work hard to get on their good side. The youngest sibling is typically the trouble maker, but I didn’t live up to that reputation. Matt, Chris, and I were always known to goof off and were happy taking the role of “class clowns.” It was all in good fun. The teachers liked us well enough anyway. Matt and Chris could take it a little too far, but I was always the sensible face of our silly triumvirate. Mrs. O’Keefe would smile and say it was ok – just don’t do it again.
That year, the Yankees were on their way to their fourth World Series in a row. Chris and I were huge Yankees fans – Matt rooted for the nearby Mets, and it seemed like this year they were poised to make a run for it behind their home run-blasting catcher, Mike Piazza. The Yanks had just swept the Red Sox in a three-game regular-season series and were on their way to a possible one hundred-win season. My cousins and I would go to games and get there early for batting practice and beg for autographs. On bat day, my cousin John accidentally hit Bernie Williams in the head with his bat – and he still got an autograph! Getting Jeter’s autograph was the goal though. Derek Jeter was the coolest guy in the world to me and probably every other kid in New York for that matter. Being eight years old and watching my favorite team win three World Series in a row was the best thing a kid could ask for. I went to the 1998 ticker-tape parade, went to dozens of ball games, shook Mayor Giuliani’s hand while sporting a jersey two times my size and a ball cap pulled far down over my eyes. I was shy and had no idea who I was meeting, but there were a lot of cameras and my dad seemed to think he was important. The Knicks and Giants were both coming off championship losses, but I figured they’d be back soon enough. For me, fourth grade was looking like a year of success – but Rebecca was my main goal, and I’d have to overcome all my fears just to speak a few words to her.
English class had ended, and we were on to math. I had an addition and subtraction down easily. Multiplication seemed easy – especially the “7’s” times table. I watched enough football to know all the multiples of touchdown scores up to 84. Division was a pain in the neck though. A few minutes into Mrs. O’Keefe’s long introduction of long division, Vice Principal Mrs. Durkin came over the loudspeaker with an announcement. There would be early dismissal and all students had to go to the auditorium ASAP.
It was orderly, as things usually were in Catholic school. There were thirty-five students in fourth grade, divided evenly into two classes – 4A and 4B, right next door to each other. Mrs. O’Keefe’s class lined up in queue right behind Mrs. Reynolds’s class. We walked down the hallway, down the stairs and into the auditorium, which also doubled as our basketball court.
We’d had a few of these random announcements before. I never really paid attention to all the weird formalities catholic school had. Random prayers, masses, guest speakers, and school-wide broadcasts were the norm. Although most of the time they at least had chairs set out for us.
This time was a little different. My class was late getting down there, but once we walked in, we knew something was up. “What the heck is going on?” Matt whispered to me. I had no idea, but I scanned the crowded auditorium, now filled with all grades, kindergarten through eighth, and looked for Tommy. Tommy came right up to me, which was weird since normally you get yelled at for something like that. At Catholic school events, there was no moving, no speaking, no ifs ands or buts. But Tommy ran right over to me, which was the first unusual part about that morning.
“Hey,” he said, “They’re sending us home early. Mom and Dad are at work, so we gotta get a ride from the McGonagle’s.”
“Ok,” I said, “What’s going on?”
“I think there was a plane crash or something.” Tommy said, “A big explosion.”
There was a lot of commotion in the next hour. Families came and picked up their kids. Every mom hugged their kid a little tighter, a little longer. There were rumors that Julie Mendez in the sixth grade went crazy, crying, and screaming in the hallway. I didn’t see or hear it, but my classmates were whispering that her dad worked somewhere near the explosion, downtown. I looked at the big clock on the wall. It was 11:30 AM, September 11th.
I had never heard it called the “World Trade Center” before. They were always just “the Twin Towers” to me. I knew my dad had worked near there. He worked in finance, and all the finance guys worked in big buildings in the city, I assumed. Tommy and I went to my dad’s office Christmas parties every year. One year, he took us to the top of the Twin Towers. Me and Tommy took a picture on the 80th floor of the North Tower, wearing our puffy New York Giants Starter jackets, with the whole city in the background. We used to play in the Looney Tunes store in the subway station underneath the Twin Towers. My dad would always buy us a cool little gadget from there, so long as we behaved.
I was always the calm one. I got that trait from my dad. Tommy was more of a worrier – being the oldest, the protector, and my mom’s first – I always watched his reaction in situations like these. I had a feeling there was something big happening. Catholic schools don’t just let you out of school for no reason. Heck, we hardly ever got snow days when blizzards came through. In the car ride home with the McGonagle’s, Tommy was surprisingly calm and quiet, stoic even. He was thinking. I asked him if Dad worked down near the Twin Towers. “I don’t think so,” Tommy said, “he moved to Midtown, but sometimes he works out of the other offices.” Tommy was twelve now, and he knew things I didn’t.
When we got home, around lunchtime, my Mom hugged us both tight, and thanked Mrs. McGonagle. We went straight to the den and watched the news for the rest of the day, as we would every morning and night for the next two months. I never watched the news before, but on this day, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen. I had never seen anything like it before. Such a big explosion, such panic. How could two tiny little planes bring such gigantic buildings down? I didn’t get it. One might have been an accident, but two seemed like it was something else entirely. My mom kept trying to reach my dad on his cell phone, but the reception was terrible. The newscasters were all saying it was impossible to get any calls to go through. I thought it was crazy that in a time like this, no one could even call each other. There were too many people dialing at once. Maybe this would help fix things. My dad finally got home later in the afternoon. We hugged him tight as a family. It was our first time hearing from him in the last twenty-four hours. Somehow, he was able to take railroad home, like any other day.
The days after that were anything other than ordinary. I write this now from my office in the Freedom Tower, which is the colloquial name people would call it. It was built to be 1,776 feet, just like the year the Declaration of Independence was written. One World Trade Center is the official legal name, given by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 2009. Nineteen years after my dad, Tommy, and I went down to Ground Zero in December 2001 and looked at the ash and rubble of the Towers, I peer out my office window at the two square voids that now make up the 9/11 Memorial. Life has changed for every American. I wasn’t quite old enough to fully experience “pre-9/11 times” but I was mature enough to recognize a stark dividing line in time. Doing anything, even something as simple as going to a Yankee game would never be as carefree as it used to be – before that Tuesday morning in fourth grade.
Now there would be metal detectors, security pat-downs, snipers, guard dogs, and loads, and loads of police officers with heavy-duty armor. It was all temporary, I hoped. Extreme reactions to extreme circumstances. I never felt more vulnerable. Every day we were all expecting when the next attack was going to be. I remember thinking that Yankee Stadium would be next. President Bush would be throwing out the first pitch before Game 3 of the World Series – what were the terrorists planning, knowing the leader of the free world would be walking out fully exposed on to the diamond that night?
In the next few months our school’s church would be the home for dozens of NYPD and FDNY funerals. Police officers and firefighters were now our heroes, in the same ilk as Jeter and Piazza. When an officer walked into the room, everyone stood up and acknowledged him or her. We were nicer to each other. We had to be. We helped each other out. I started reading books about the army and Navy SEALs. I was angry. I had a lot of questions, but my parents couldn’t answer them, and neither could the news. No one could pin down who did it. They knew it was the “Middle East” but no one had ever heard of those countries. We were looking for someone, anyone to blame. There was pride in being a New Yorker, in being an American. Everywhere I looked, there were American flags, banners, and hats with NYPD or FDNY, “United We Stand,” “Remember Our Heroes.”
That year, a new boy joined our basketball team, his name was Osama. I felt bad for him and his father. They were nice people, but things changed for them quickly. My town had lots of Indians and Pakistanis. The ignorant people assumed they were the same people who attacked our country. Anyone with dark skin, dark hair, and robes or a turban weren’t shown any respect. Just a few days ago, they were nice people – all of a sudden, they were enemies. Children could be cruel, especially to a boy with the same name as the man responsible for the most violent attack on American soil in our history.
Rebecca was still the girl of my dreams, but that took a backseat to my emotions at that time. Sports would be the refuge of my anger. The Giants and Yankees would don ballcaps honoring the FDNY/NYPD for the next few years, American flags and fighter jets surrounded every stadium, and pride beamed during the National Anthem.
We had to grow up quick. One Tuesday morning, our lives had changed in less than an hour.