Uncovering Secrets

I didn’t understand then. I watched as teachers hurried around, checking that everyone was safe. I watched as my best friend sat completely still in the yellow bean bag next to me. I watched as the newscaster gave us updated reports on the events of that day. But it’s like they weren’t really there. They had this faraway look on their faces, as if they were somewhere else. It was as if they were all in on various terrible secrets that they didn’t want me to discover, but knew that someday I would. I was completely baffled by their strange behavior, as I watched tears roll down their cheeks. If only I knew. If only I understood.

“Can I borrow your pink crayon?” I asked my best friend, Cassie. Her real name was Cassandra but everyone called her Cassie, like the pink dragon from Dragon Tales. Just as I finished my question, the alarms went off. Suddenly everyone was in motion, the teachers, the students, a few crayons even flying through the air. I surveyed the scene while my classmates ran hysterically around in circles, like chickens without heads. It felt like I was stuck in the eye of a hurricane for I was the calm in all the turmoil surrounding me.

“Excuse me, please do not panic. Everyone stay in your assigned classrooms. Everything will be fine,” the principal’s voice announced through the crackling of the intercom. I could tell she was trying to stay calm for the sake of the students, but at the end her voice cracked. I heard her take a deep, shaky breath before the intercom cut off. A blue crayon flying through the air smacked me on my head snapping me out of my calm trance. A flurry of thoughts ran through my mind over and over again. What’s happening? Why is everyone pretending everything is okay? Why does nobody want to tell me? I wanted answers, but I was also afraid of them.

“Can I have your attention, please? Let’s all sit in the reading area now,” my teacher, Ms. Pittman, shouted over the chattering of twenty-five bewildered first graders. I found Cassie, and together we linked arms and sank into two adjacent yellow bean bags at the edge of the reading area carpet.

“Ms. Pittman, Ms. Pittman! What’s happening?” I exclaimed as she walked past me. I didn’t get an answer. It was as if she couldn’t hear me as she walked to the television and clicked the button to turn it on. I watched as the screen turned from black to a real life nightmare. The screen showed two towers burning with a thick cloud of black smoke spoiling the blue sky above them. Slowly, as if in slow motion a chunk of one of the towers tore off falling to the ground below. “Oh my gosh…” I breathed as I spun around to look at everyone in my class, peeking at their reactions. Everyone was silent, their mouths hanging wide open. Most looked enthralled as if what had happened was part of an action-packed movie, not fully realizing that everything they saw was real. Others, such as myself, looked horrified. We didn’t understand the impact of what was happening, we just knew it was bad.

“What’s happening?” I questioned, almost desperately.

“I… I don’t know,” Cassie croaked, as if she was having a hard time getting the words out. I watched her for a second, never having seen her close to tears before. She was sitting completely still as if the rest of the world was just a blur.

“Cassie, are you okay?”

“Um… Yeah, I’m fine. Can we play a game? Please?” she begged, attempting to sound chipper. Cassie was tough as nails, but I could tell when something was bothering her by the faraway look she got in her eyes. The same look Ms. Pittman had at that moment. They seemed to understand something that I didn’t. I wanted to push farther into Cassie’s mind but I knew it was useless, for she was stubborn as a mule and couldn’t be pushed into anything she didn’t want to do.

“Okay, let’s play Miss Mary Mack,” I suggested, hoping to take my mind off the chaos and strange sadness surrounding us.

“Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack, all dressed in black, black, black,” we sang in unison while doing a little clapping jig with our hands. “With silver buttons, buttons, buttons, all down her back, back, ba—” Abruptly Cassie and I both cut off our song after hearing a loud gasp from the front of the room. Ms. Pittman was clutching her chest with tears in her eyes. All eyes were riveted to the space around her, nobody brave enough to look at her directly. However, through my peripheral vision I could tell that she was staring up at the television screen as if it were her only lifeline. The screen showed firefighters running into the burning building to rescue the people stuck on the top floors, most of them never coming out again according to the distressed newscaster. At that moment Ms. Pittman finally noticed the dead silence and grave stares coming from the faces of the six-year-old children surrounding her.

“I’m so sorry, everyone. I’m fine, really! Everything is fine,” she repeated, quickly wiping away the tears on her cheek. “When I call your name, please raise your hand. I need to make sure that everyone is safe and sound,” she dictated, attempting to sound in control. Gathering herself together, she began calling our names in alphabetical order. Everyone raised their hands quietly, as if any slight noise would cause a breakdown. I was so caught up in my own thoughts of confusion and bewilderment that I didn’t notice that the yellow bean bag next to me was empty. “Cassie?” Ms. Pittman paused, waiting for a hand to go up. “Hello? Cassie?” she repeated, anxiously.

“She’s gone. I-I don’t know where she is. She was h-here a minute ago,” I stammered. “I’ll look outside,” I decided, then took a deep breath and walked to the door. I opened the heavy, metal door letting in a blast of heat from outside. Outside, leaning against the turquoise railing was a small, crumpled figure sobbing on the ground.

“Kylene?” the sobbing figure blubbered, while attempting to control the flood of tears flowing over her face.

“What happened, Cassie?

“My dad…” she trailed off, as if unable to continue her sentence.

“What?” I asked, thoroughly puzzled as to how this related to her sly escape from the classroom.

“The firefighters, they’re dying! My dad’s a firefighter. I’m so scared because that could’ve been him,” she bawled, pulling her knees up to her chest and putting her head down in them. “People are dying! I’m not sure what happened, and how the plane crashed into those two towers but I know that people are dying. Kylene, didn’t you see Ms. Pittman’s face? Whether you know it or not, this affects everyone! You, me, the nation. It affects everyone. I hope my dad is okay,” she ended in a barely audible whisper.

“I’m sure he’s okay. We’re not even in New York, Cassie. I’m sure everything is fine… Perfectly fine. Right? I mean, he just has to be safe,” I babbled, as the reality of the situation hit me. I stumbled over to Cassie, while tears blurred my vision, and offered her a hug that we both needed.

“Why don’t we go back inside before Ms. Pittman starts to worry?” I suggested, pulling together a small smile. We walked into the classroom together, just as the Star Spangled Banner began through the sputtering of the intercom. Hastily, we placed our right hand over our heart as a sign of respect and sang sorrowfully along. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” I mouthed to Cassie, offering her my hand and a sympathetic smile as the song ended.

“Yes. I’ll be okay. Thank you,” she mouthed back, squeezing my hand and tremulously returning the smile. We both looked to Ms. Pittman knowing that someday, like her, we would gain a deeper understanding of the events that day. As the newscaster’s voice played in the background, we plopped back into our yellow bean bags with a deep, heavy sigh. It had been a long day for two tiny, little six-year-olds.

Looking back on 9/11, I realize now that what I understood that day was only a tiny part of the whole picture. As a six-year-old, my brain couldn’t fully comprehend the dire situation. But now, ten years later, I finally get it. Comprehension and understanding have hit me like crashing into a brick wall, and there is absolutely no going back. I have now uncovered the terrible secrets that I had once longed to know.

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