That’s how old I was on that day. I was a freshman in college, at a school in downtown Chicago. The phone in my dorm room rang and woke me up, and it was my sister. She knew that we didn’t have TVs in our room, and this was long before we got our news on our cell phones before we got out of bed. She told me there had been an attack, and that I needed to find a TV to watch. Not long after, we were told we needed to evacuate our dorms — not knowing if there were more attacks planned — so I spent the afternoon wandering around the eerily empty streets of Chicago. Businesses were closed, sidewalks were deserted. My friends and I walked in the actual street — on Chicago Avenue, downtown… because there were no cars. Everyone was gone.
Every September 11, all over the United States, we collectively share our memories of that day: where we were when we heard, the connections to New York City or the people there, the fear and uncertainty that filled the air. Some were there and share their first-hand experiences; others about the loved ones who died.
As we share these memories, I’ve found a particular connection among those who are my age.
Because we were eighteen.
As of today, it was half our lifetime ago.
I recently visited Ground Zero with a friend who was also eighteen that day, also a
college freshman. We talked at length about how formative that day was on our lives: We began adulthood with a terrorist attack. Everything we had been taught in elementary and middle and high schools changed that day, at the very beginning of our freshman year of college. We had graduated high school three months earlier with high hopes for our lives — the economy was pretty good; we knew that we could go to college, get a degree, get a job, and be successful. We had no reason to believe otherwise.
But 9/11 changed all that. We not only felt fear, but we felt the burden. We were the country’s newest adults, as 18-year-old college freshmen. We could vote and we could go to war; we knew that whatever hopes and plans we had for our lives could no longer be taken for granted. We are the first group of people who have only known adulthood through the lens of 9/11… and from that day on, what it meant to be an adult in the United States was different.
That evening, after all the flights had been grounded and information was starting to come in, the student body at my college gathered.
We weren’t certain who had done it.
We didn’t know if there would be more attacks.
We didn’t know if there would be a war.
We didn’t know if there would be a draft.
At eighteen, that was about as far as I could grasp: Would my friends would be drafted, and would they start including women in that draft? I named that question out loud that night and my friends and I all stared at each other.
We didn’t know.
There was no precedent; we couldn’t just call our parents and ask what happened the last time this had happened… because it never had. We were all charting new territory.
I certainly had no idea how to conceptualize the impact this would have on the economy, much less existentially on our entire generation. I didn’t know that, the year many of us were finishing our graduate degrees and ready to enter professions, the bottom would drop out of the economy and our options would be limited.
I had no idea how much xenophobia and racism would infiltrate our nation, revealing what had been underneath the surface all along.
I had no idea that, four years later, I would marry a Soldier, and that, though there was no draft and many Americans are far removed from war, it would be woven into the fabric of my family.
I had no idea that, eighteen years later, we would still be fighting.
I’ve read some articles comparing Millennials to The Silent Generation, because there is a lot of commonality between the two. Like them, we have taken on the brunt of fighting wars on two fronts for our entire adult lives, with an uncertain economy at home. Among all the tropes about Millennials, not much is written about how 9/11 existentially shaped our entire generation. I am an older Millennial and was eighteen; the bulk of this generation were in school that day — from preschool to high school. As they have transitioned into adulthood, they’ve done so without the certainty and security of the promise that if you work hard, you can be successful. That simply isn’t universally true anymore.
Those who are eighteen today were babies that day, infants. They, who couldn’t even talk when 9/11 happened, are now voting and heading to college… and joining the military. They don’t remember a time before 9/11; they have grown up as a nation at war, with parents who must have been terrified that day for what it would mean for their babies.
As I stood at Ground Zero last month, my eyes were drawn to the streets and sidewalks around me. There are now holes in the ground where those buildings had been, surrounded by these sidewalks that had been filled with debris, the streets that had been filled with the injured and dying, the first responders who put themselves in harm’s way to try to help. There are always those trying to help.
The spirit there is palpable and the air is heavy.
I feel that heaviness today, though it is deep in my soul every single day.
That day, eighteen years ago, changed the reality of what is for all of us, though it is felt in different ways. I don’t know where we’ll be eighteen years from now, in 2037. I don’t know what world today’s eighteen-year-olds will forge, or what today’s babies will graduate into. I have hopes for the world of 2037, but it is far from pie-in-the-sky optimism; my hope is grounded in the reality of what is, knowing that what is better — might be.
What is changed in 2001.
But if we get to work, and keep on with the good work, then maybe, just maybe, in eighteen years, those babies-of-today-turned-college-freshmen will start adulthood with less fear and uncertainty and hatred… maybe their world might be something better.