“Looking back through my eleventh grade yearbook, it is easy to tell who knew or who didn’t as their photo was being taken. See, September 11 was also Picture Day in my Southern New Jersey high school.”
Class Picture Day
Looking back through my eleventh grade yearbook, it is easy to tell who knew or who didn’t as their photo was being taken. See, September 11 was also Picture Day in my Southern New Jersey high school.
Picture Day was always a favorite day for me. I love a good excuse to get dressed up; I love seeing my friends step it up, too. The hallways always clicked a little more from the popular girls in heels. So if you were lucky enough to have a last name like Anderson or Charles, you probably made it through the gymnasium queue before 9am. Good for you; your smile come June looks genuine. Keep in mind that this was a high school of 2000, who inevitably never fill out the form correctly if they want the souvenir mug along with their photo package. If you were a Daniels or an Elton, you probably picked up on the fact that Something Had Happened - gossip spreads like wildfire in any high school, big or small - but hadn’t yet gone back to a classroom with a television. If we a Gore or a Hein (like me), you were screwed. You had to watch the whole terrible thing unfold before your eyes, and then you had to sit to have your picture taken for the yearbook. The command to “Smile!” sounded like the worst insult.
Each classroom in my high school was equipped with a closed-circuit television that could also receive a select few (deemed educational) outside channels. Every morning, we watched our morning announcements from the school’s TV studio on them, etcetera. Toward the end of 2nd period, a teacher knocked on the door and interrupted class, telling my Pre-Cal teacher to switch on the news because Something Had Happened. On went CNN, and boom! There it was: both towers of the World Trade Center were on fire.
This only lasted for our about five minutes, because the bell to change classes rang. When you’re on an honors track, your classes tend to be scheduled at the same times with the same people. Our group quietly shuffled into our next class - English - with everyone abuzz with what had just seen. An accident? Terrorism? Should we switch on the TV or wait for Ms. Winder? She flew in a few minutes after us (bless her heart, Ms. Winder, but she was always nervous and rarely on time for anything). She promised that we could go back to the news immediately after she distributed our recent Shakespeare tests (I can’t remember the play). This took ten long, excruciating minutes. Finally she agreed to give over the rest of the class period to doing what we all wanted to do - watch the damn news! So she turned on CNN.
There was only one tower of the World Trade Center standing now.
I remember not being very horrified initially. Simply a twinge of thinking, “Well, that picture just doesn’t look right. I wonder why?” Even when I processed it - the tower was gone and they were talking about airplanes crashing into them - it still didn’t strike me as very real. A classmate’s father was a commercial airline pilot. I remember Ms. Winder quietly allowing her to go into the hall and make a call to her mother.
This next bit, I have to confess that I don’t know if it really happened. I have not watched many 9/11 documentaries or much of the amateur footage, so I fear that it did. We were channel surfing between two news stations, CNN and ABC, and landed back on ABC. A female anchor was interviewing two reporters, and the remaining tower was burning in the background of their shot. One reporter was giving a set of facts, and she quickly interrupted him: “(Name), I wanna stop you right there, something appears to be happening behind you…” She had perfect timing, because that is when the second tower - at such a distance - appeared to crumble away as it were already made of simple ash.
It has to be real. It has to be. I remember what it feels like to watch. I remember being able to hear people crying out in the next classroom because they were watching it, too. I remember seeing white. I remember putting my head down on my desk and repeating to myself, “This isn’t happening, that didn’t happen, what is going on, what is going on.” I remember that the person sitting in front of me starting whispering a Hail Mary to herself. I have contemplated many times trying to search out this piece of footage. I certainly have enough media and Internet savvy to do so. Part of me doesn’t ever want to know. I am comforted by the uncertainty that I have only imagined this horrific event, and that everything is secretly okay.
The rest of the day was gone, as far as learning was concerned. All we did was watch the news, and then that got too depressing and exhausting, we just sat there and reacted to one another. It was too surreal to believe had happened. Living in the Northeast Corridor is an odd existence sometimes; you don’t belong to Trenton, or Philadelphia, or New York City. They are places that are both far away and very close. 9/11 felt too close. My biology teacher’s husband worked in the Financial District and she couldn’t reach him because the cell network had crashed (he was fine, it ended up). I myself had just been to Manhattan two weeks earlier. I was wearing an outfit I had purchased at the Fifth Avenue H&M specifically for Picture Day.
I remember on the drive home from school that day how normal some things still seemed. The landscapers were still mowing my neighbor’s lawn. We still had to wait five tries at the light on Main Street because it was the only way from the high school to this side of town and always jammed up this time of day. I hugged my mother so tightly when I got home, and only reluctantly later told her that I had tripped outside trying to get inside fast enough and had torn my pants and was she mad because these were kind of expensive (at the time)? Of course she wasn’t mad.
My father was stranded overseas on September 11. He had to sleep in Heathrow for almost an entire week because it was impossible to fly home. Although 9/11 definitely dominated the news coverage there, we have often talked about how he feels that he “missed out” on something by not experiencing it live (“live” - thank you, television, for collapsing the definition of that word in terms of the news media). I find that both extremely morbid and incredibly accurate. Because of my television, I lived through September 11 and I will never forget that.
I never wore that particular outfit again, by the way. Not for Picture Day, not for anything. Clothes should make you feel confident. Those never could again. And I am definitely not showing you my junior year class picture.
— Tahlia Hein
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