On September 11, 2001, I had been a New Jersey schoolkid for all of a couple of weeks. I was barely 16 and the shy new girl in a small town outside Princeton where lots of parents took the train into lower Manhattan each day. When a jet slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center during homeroom, and another shortly after the bell for first period, the little world I was getting to know disintegrated very quickly.
Cell phones weren’t as ubiquitous then, so every landline in the building was soon in the hand of a student calling a mother, a father, a sibling. We were herded into the cafeteria, and sent home before noon. I walked the mile back to my house and sat with my mom and sister, staring at the TV until I couldn’t look any more.
I remember talking to my best friend back in Crozet that evening. Two states, two states of emergency. She said a teacher had told her class that this day would be a defining moment for our generation; that it would change everything. And of course it did.
I lived in New Jersey for the next 10 years, and worked as a reporter there for four of them. This time of year, I can’t help thinking about how 9/11 wove its way into everyone’s lives in my adopted state. After New York, New Jersey lost the most people in the attacks. The wounds were deep, but there was no gaping hole, no center of gravity for the pain. Instead, the casualties and suffering were spread out among the leafy, quiet commuter towns. You run into the legacy of that day everywhere, especially when it’s your job to learn people’s stories. The dedication of a memorial garden across the street from the train station in Middletown, chosen because it was the last place many of the 37 residents killed in the towers stood in town the day they died; the career New York cop I got to know who worked on the pile at Ground Zero for months and, like so many first responders, died a slow death as a result; the sweet and brilliant twins I babysat who never knew their dad.
It’s hard to know what our responsibility is as journalists when it comes to marking the anniversary of a great national tragedy, especially this year, with the big round 10 behind us. There’s something to be said for the quiet abatement of grief, for not dragging up all that pain just because the date on the calendar says we should.
But we have all these stories around us and in us, and I do think we should take time to keep them alive. The best example of how to do it right was the New York Times’ Portraits of Grief, a comprehensive series of vignettes of the victims of the New York attacks that are as piercing and poignant today as they were more than a decade ago, when a team of reporters first started gathering them. They give us a sense of the magnitude of the tragedy while honoring the lives, the quirks, the loves, and the struggles of those who died by sharing their stories. I think the best thing we can do to mark a day we wish had never happened is to hold onto those stories, read them again, and remember.