Updated: Apr 8, 2021
On September 9, 2001, my roommate and I stood on the World Trade Center Plaza. A band played in the distance, Lady Liberty presided from the water, and steel hovered above us, towers anchored to the Earth like a shield: impressive, impenetrable, unmoveable. In that rare, post-run moment, we paused to take it all in, something we often took for granted as 23 year-olds living in New York City, and I can't help but wonder how many people had a similar moment last year, in the days, weeks and months leading up to March of 2020.
Of course, we all know what plays out two days after September 9th, but on the 11th, it was a regular morning, in my regular life. Then, in one sweep of the universe's pen, I fell from the page of a script where I believed I could create predictable pathways if I worked hard, made good decisions, and lived with integrity, and I landed on page one of a new script, playing the role of a rogue robot, emotionally and psychologically lost.
For a while, I existed in a purgatory of anger, resenting both where I stood and where I wished to stand, yearning for a time and place that no longer existed, feeling indignant about the world I had lost, enraged by the injustice, terrified by the threats, jarred by the scale of destruction, uncertain of everything.
And then, layered beneath it all, there was guilt: guilt for being alive, guilt because I didn't descend 70 flights of stairs, guilt because I didn't break bones, bleed blood, or rush in to rescue an entire floor of people. Guilt because despite my effort to minimize it, I felt tremendous grief for my lost innocence, my abandoned story, my sense of security, and for a little while, my hope.
I lived four blocks from the disaster, so I was unable to return to my apartment, and on September 13th, my parents brought me back to Upper Arlington. Ten days after that, I returned to the city once more, and instead of reuniting with a place full of possibility, open to all of the quintessential, twenty-something, young professional moments I expected to have when I first arrived, I returned to boarded up buildings, makeshift memorials, piles of ash, missing person posters, empty apartments, contaminated air, dismantled transportation systems, bomb threats, economic instability, anthrax scares, panic attacks, and funerals...lots and lots of funerals.
I returned to a dirty sky, with air as thick as cotton, and scared of what I might find if I actually looked up, I persistently diverted my gaze. I didn’t want to see the byproducts of tragedy, tucked into street corners, posted up on boards, or hidden inside the smoke in the sky. The motif of death was too much to take back then, but in time, those very same images morphed into life. When I look back now, I no longer see the darkness; I see symbols of light.
Instead of graffiti, I see the bravery of love. Instead of worthless roses buried by the weight of ash, I see flowers fighting against ghosts. And instead of fixating on the void where the towers once stood, I remember the blue beams of light sent splitting the sky, rising where the buildings fell, showing us that gaps one day get filled.
And sure enough, one day they did.
Certainly not for everyone, because not "everything works out in the end," and not "everything happens for a reason" for everyone stricken by trauma. But for those who are lucky enough to be left behind, lucky enough to feel lucky again, there is always beauty folded somewhere inside the terrible layers of reality; people just need the support and space to find it.
Like I did the morning of September 11th, on March 13, 2020, our students woke up playing their same old roles, in their same old world. When they went home that afternoon, however, everything had changed. School had been closed, trips had been cancelled, seasons were stopped. Nothing was predictable: the scene was obliterated, the stage directions disappeared, the American high school script had been torn to shreds. We hoped it would return, but a month went by, and then another. Eventually, nearly every milestone evaporated or morphed beyond recognition, and with every cancelation, every modification, every wave of loss, students have had to adjust their vision in a world no one understands.
The road has been just as long, but the landmarks have disappeared. And instead of locking arms and marching through the rights of passage together, they have been told to trek it alone, through a desert sandstorm without a satisfying end in sight. Adults continue to shout orders through bullhorns, telling them to just hold on. But the script is new, their voices are hazy, their mission is fuzzy, and without a sense of purpose, a jolt of joy, or a map of past experience, many have no reason to believe terrible things ever end.
Told over and over that other plights are worse than theirs, they are shamed into silence. But human emotion isn't simple or linear, and comparisons are counterproductive. We feel what we feel, and while empathizing allows insight and perspective, we need to remember that pain doesn't dissolve when we mark it along a line; sadness doesn't recede when we learn "it could always be worse." To grow, we have to meet our pain where it is. And as fellow humans, we need to validate their pain in order for them to heal.
One day, COVID will fade from the forefront of our minds. Classes and extracurricular activities will resume, and society will have found a way to move on. We always do; we always have. But students don't know that, because many have never lived to see it. And when they do, even then, no amount of money or time can bring back their losses this year. Forevermore, no matter what happens next, those seasons, musicals, concerts, dances, sleepovers, field trips, orientations, college visits, and hands on classes will never happen in quite the same way ever again.
And so while it is appropriate for us to feel empathy for those who have lost everything, it is also important for us to find empathy for those who grieve anything. We are capable of both. And finding empathy for both could very well change the world.
Twenty years ago, I saw a city rise from ash. I learned that voids were made for listening, loneliness produces discovery, stories twist and turn, heroes sometimes wear camouflage capes, and people can make magic out of dust even when the glitter is gone. I learned life isn't fair, nothing is guaranteed, some people are born with golden pots, while others are forced to cook without a kitchen, and sometimes, even when you have the tools and you follow every step in the recipe, you can still get burnt. But mostly, I learned that strength isn't an impressive, impenetrable shield, or a tower of steel that refuses to move. Even those can fall down.
Strength is a dash of inspiring paint pressing into plywood walls. It is a stem who refuses to buckle beneath the weight of ash. It is a beam of light rising in an empty sky: authentic and vulnerable, resilient and flexible. It is a nascent player on a brand new stage, a budding actor with an unfamiliar script, an open heart throbbing, who one day decides, against all odds, to stand up, speak out, and hold on.
As vaccines find their way into arms and classrooms fill once again, instead of harping on the content students missed, and the work they need to do to catch up, we need to make space for them to discover what they did learn or could learn. We need to let them find the beauty folded somewhere inside the layers of their reality. We need to give them permission to explore new skylines, discover new horizons, and decide just who they want to be now.
But first, we need to give them permission to grieve. We need to see them, validate them and love them.
And if we do that, who knows which memories of loss might be converted to light, which lessons of survival will teach them to thrive, which insurmountable obstacle will suddenly fall. People can do amazing things if we let them. We just have to carve out the space, and give them the support they need, to try.
Laura (Mills) Moore (UAHS Class of ‘96) is approaching the end of her 16th year in education, and every day she is reminded why she made the leap from advertising to teaching. She loves every moment she gets to champion ideas, challenge and mentor students, and persist in her quest to make the world a little better than it was yesterday...and she feels so fortunate to be doing it at her alma mater, in a community that will always have her heart.
Laura has a B.A. in English from Dartmouth College and an M.Ed from John Carroll University. She has been published in York College's STORY Magazine and on YA Outside the Lines, and she has both a YA novel and a memoir in progress. She has co-authored and published a children's book, writes blog posts about education, and essays about the struggles and joys of life. At UAHS, she is an English teacher and the teacher leader for the Research & Design Lab. She lives in Upper Arlington with her husband, Jared, and their first grade son Zach.