Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine, and we feel it’s important to run each year on the anniversary of 9/11.
Some of us were caught off-guard by the way American college students celebrated — went fist-pumping, shirts-off bananas, actually — when Osama bin Laden was killed. The pictures were jarring, even allowing for the reality that college students (the type who enjoy screaming into television cameras, anyway) would use any excuse to act like they were on spring break for a few hours.
It seemed fair to doubt the sincerity of the outbursts, to maybe get a little judgmental in asking what 9/11— not the following decade of Everything’s Changed that they grew up in, but the day itself — could really have meant to them. They were grade-schoolers, after all, barely old enough to understand whatever bits and pieces grown-ups decided to let them see and hear that day.
But it’s a short evolution from skepticism to curiosity: What exactly was September 11, 2001 like for them? And as anniversary 10 approached, we asked four Valley kids to tell us. Turns out that, while we were all watching the unimaginable, they were also watching us. They are among the youngest people who actually remember that day. Here are their recollections.
Nathan Gilbert, now 25, then a third-grader at G.W. Brown Early Elementary School in Newburyport: The first real thing I actually remember is getting off the bus, and before we went into the school we mingled in the playground or whatever. I remember walking into the school just thinking it didn’t feel like a normal day. So I think the first plane had already hit.
Morgan Lindemayer, now 27, then a student at McCarthy Middle School in Chelmsford: I do remember my math teacher being really quiet, when he’s usually really excited. Nothing stood out to me at school except for that. Everyone pretty much kept it quiet and tried to stay the same, and none of the kids knew.
Matt Peabody, now 24, then a fifth-grader at North Elementary School in Londonderry, N.H.: I remember not being able to go outside for recess, and the teachers saying it was because of bees or something. I also remember wanting to go home that day, and I’m pretty sure I faked sick and got sent home.
Catherine McLaughlin, now 24, then a fourth-grader at Bancroft Elementary in Andover: A couple of kids got pulled out of school. I guess that was the thing I noticed first. I didn’t know why it was happening. Even after that point, it was pretty normal.
Gilbert: We had a quiz. My teacher then was Mrs. Kent, our teaching assistant was Mrs. K. I remember Mrs. K. being on the phone, kind of freaking out. Her hands kept going up: “What’re we supposed to do?” That’s the one vivid phrase she kept saying. “What’re we supposed to do?”
Peabody: They made it sound bad, like there were really a lot of bees outside.
Gilbert: They called the teachers to the gym, and right after that, that’s when you started to see kids disappear. And we were just like, where is everybody going? I just wanna go home and play with my Playmobiles.
McLaughlin: I thought they might be in trouble or something when they didn’t come back.
Gilbert: One girl, I remember her mom coming in and literally, quick as a cat, grabbed Brie and left. Usually the teacher asked for a note, maybe there’d be a conversation. I was baffled. The first thing for me was, “Brie is getting out of this quiz!”
Lindemayer: I came home, and my mom was waiting for me at the kitchen table, which wasn’t out of the ordinary. I came in and asked how her day was, and she said, “Not that well, considering what happened.” I was confused, because I didn’t know what happened, and I asked her, “Are you OK?” And she said no. I was immediately worried, thinking something had happened to my family.
Peabody: I remember getting home and turning the TV on. I’m pretty sure my mom just said what it was. An attack. No, a plane crash. She said a plane crashed into the towers.
Lindemayer: She thought that I already knew. She was surprised I didn’t know what was going on, actually. When I came in and asked her how she was doing, I was happy, and she looked at me funny, like I was doing something wrong. I remember very clearly the look on her face.
McLaughlin: We got home at 3:00-ish. At that point she told me what was going on. My mom said, “I think I should tell you this because you’ll hear a lot of things tomorrow. Two planes crashed in New York into a tall building.” She just gave the base layer.
Gilbert: I remember walking into the house, sitting in the living room, looking at the TV, seeing Tom Brokaw. I could see New York City, could see the smoke on TV, and right then, what the heck is going on here?
Lindemayer: And she proceeded to explain to me what had happened, and I was scared. Confused and scared.
Gilbert: They showed [the Flight 93 crash in Pennsylvania] and I thought, “Holy crap, that’s cool.” And I see my mom in tears.
McLaughlin: We didn’t really talk about it at all. They kept us away from a lot of that stuff in general when we were younger.
Lindemayer: It was very stark, very concise. It was almost as if she was reading a police report. I don’t want to say it lacked emotion, but it was very concise. It was strange to me because she’s usually not like that. She’s usually full of emotion and more passion than that. That also made me realize something big had happened, because she wasn’t acting the same.
Peabody: I remember being in my mom’s bedroom watching it, and hiding under the covers.
Gilbert: I was saying I don’t wanna watch this, I wanna watch … “Zoom,” I think, was the big show back then. I would try to change the channel, and they wouldn’t tell me what was going on, but wanted me to watch it.
Peabody: I was thinking, this could happen here, right at the house. Because planes would fly over the house, because we were in the pathway for the Manchester airport.
McLaughlin: My dad came home came home early, and he never really came home early. My dad would usually come home at 9:00 or later, when I was in bed. But I didn’t connect the two events. He was upset, it seemed, but I didn’t know if he was tired or what, because I didn’t see him after work. That’s just how he was.
Peabody: My aunt and uncle were flying on that day, and I found that out somehow. I actually remember going out in the backyard and looking up at the planes.
McLaughlin: Everything kind of went on as a normal day.
Gilbert: My grandmother showed up at the house and hugged me, and that night she kind of explained what happened. And she did it in a very third-grade way, talking about how there were some bad guys who decided to do some very bad things, and they hurt a lot of people today. This is around dinner, because I remember we had potluck for dinner. We had leftovers — it was mac and cheese.
Lindemayer: My dad came home shortly after I came home. That’s very unusual. My dad usually stayed at work until 6:00 or 7:00, and he came home at 4:30. My dad’s a very funny guy, he likes to make jokes, and he never said anything. It was very quiet when he came home. We have dogs — they were younger then — and he would always come home and run around and play with them. And he didn’t do that. He put his briefcase down, went over and sat down and watched the news. He said hi to me, how are you, but never said anything specific about it.
Gilbert: I didn’t go to bed, really, at all. At 8:00, 8:30 maybe, my parents were upstairs watching it, and I remember sitting downstairs, just glued to the TV.
Lindemayer: And after that, it was like time stopped for the rest of the day. Time ceased. Nothing normal happened. My mom didn’t make dinner. My dad didn’t read the newspaper.
Gilbert: I fell asleep on the couch. I remember that because my mom just let me sleep until the next morning. I would say I fell asleep around 9:40, 9:45-ish, because I was just so sucked into it.
Lindemayer: I know that I did watch the news for awhile, but after that I can’t tell you. I can’t remember. I honestly don’t remember eating dinner, I don’t remember going to bed, I don’t remember doing my homework. I remember feeling numb — like this isn’t the way the world is supposed to be.